First, a confession: I am not totally sure how to start this review. On its surface, the job of a book reviewer is simple: describe the book, perhaps situate it in some sort of context (genre, historical, or within the author’s other work, for instance), and then tell readers whether or not the book is worth reading. So, for the purposes of this review, I’d like to start backwards. Author, activist, and writer Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s new novel Sketchtasy (out from Arsenal Pulp Press on October 9) is absolutely worth reading. Yet trying to describe this novel—even its plot—is difficult because the novel as a whole is so unique.
If you’ve read Sycamore’s work before, there are some common threads in Sketchtasy that resonate from her other books, including So Many Ways to Sleep Badly and The End of San Francisco: trans and queer characters on the margins of society, drug and substance use, sex work as a means of survival, the queer club scene, trauma, and the hard work of maintaining one’s self-image in a world that strives to extinguish anyone who radically, proudly differs from the mainstream.
Sketchtasy’s heroine Alexa, a trans sex worker, has built a chosen family with a ragtag group of queer and trans youth as they come of age in mid-1990s Boston. This short summary is not entirely accurate—the novel is so much more than that, but in the interest of avoiding spoilers (and having this review be made up of a gargantuan plot summary instead of, say, an actual review), I’ve chosen not to reveal too much. There is a lot going on in this novel, and nearly all of it is compelling.
Sycamore excels at a writing style that is both deeply personal and breakneck quick; if there’s one critique that I have of Sketchtasy—in the most positive way possible—it is that the novel moves so quickly that it can be jarring for readers. There are several scenes where Alexa appears not to know where she is, usually after a long night or two of partying with her friends, which can end up mirroring the reader’s confusion. But despite this sort of literary version of How Did I Get Here?, Sketchtasy keeps the reader engaged for the entirety of its 268 pages, and it is an immense credit to Sycamore’s writing and character-building skills that the novel never drags, especially when it tackles subjects (ie: trauma) that, in the hands of a less skilled writer, could go from compelling to over-the-top.
Over-the-top is not always a bad thing, however, and the way that Sketchtasy ends might be my favorite book ending of 2018. The ending is certainly one of the most impressive I have read in my lengthy tenure as a fiction reader—Sycamore creates a beautiful, moving, and intense meditation on reconnecting with and remaking one’s self after trauma. Longtime fans of Sycamore’s work will likely hail Sketchtasy as a modern classic, and new fans will find the novel enjoyable if they keep an open mind.
Photo: Jesse Mann