The dream of the 90s is a total fucking nightmare

Paul Constant

October 23, 2018

Sometimes I worry that Americans are starting to get nostalgic for the 1990s the same way adults were nostalgic for the 1950s when I was a kid. I've seen some people — some older than me, many younger than me — lamenting the fact that things were simpler then, before 9/11, before the Iraq War and Katrina and Trump and biweekly school shootings. There's an attempt, in listicles and fawning Reddit posts, and adoring Twitter threads, to paint the 1990s as an era free of conflict, when things were Just Better.

I'm not in any position to judge those who are trying to claim the 1990s as a safe space. I was a young man in the 1990s — in my teens and early twenties — and at the time, I thought they were boring and simple and safe, too. I remember being a snotty young drunk in Boston, feeling angry that my generation didn't have its own revolution, that there were no causes to fight for, that nobody was dying in the streets and that there were no grave injustices to correct.

Of course I was wrong; there were revolutions happening all around me. People were dying — sometimes literally in the streets. There were plenty of causes to fight for. But I was too comfortable, too complacent, and too intellectually incurious to see the struggle for survival that was happening all around me.

That struggle is depicted at length in Seattle writer Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore's triumphant new novel Sketchtasy. At roughly the same time that I was pouting and mourning the loss of my nonexistent revolutionary spirit, on the other side of the city, Sketchtasy's protagonist, Alexa, was living a life worlds apart from my straight-boy angst.

Calvin's got this tiny little red sports car and we're both wired. I lean my head back and think I shouldn't have done that coke, I shouldn't have done that coke. But then I think fuck it, I might as well enjoy it, and Calvin puts on "You're So Vain" — more classic rock, gross. He says is this okay — I'm nuts about Carly Simon. Did he really just say nuts? Nuts and blow.

"Nuts and blow" describes where many of Alexa's interests are. She does plenty of drugs and she has lots of sex. She gets her dick sucked and she sucks plenty of dick. She fucks and is fucked. (In every meaning of the word "fuck.")

"As soon as I start turning tricks again I feel like I never stopped," Alexa says. When Sketchtasy begins, she's 21, but her exhausted tone drags plenty of extra decades behind it.

She has reason to be weary. Though it still carries the Kennedy-shiny pedigree of liberalism, Boston is a city with a lot of hate in its heart, and in the middle of the 1990s, that hate was perfectly acceptable to show off in public. When Alexa goes out onto the streets, she can't hide who she is, and her queen-y glamor attracts plenty of bigotry. On the train, a man punches the back of her seat while chanting slurs, and then he punches a metal bar when Alexa dares to talk back to him. She's yelled at on the street, and mocked by teenagers, and the threat of violence hovers over every step.

And of course the AIDS crisis is the unspoken specter in the room, always. Alexa takes regular HIV tests and tries to be safe, but so damn many people have died that even a full dance floor can feel empty with all the people who should be there but aren't. Alexa can see what it does to people: "And when I look at her eyes again I notice that the blue is sparkling but it's a lake that's been poisoned."

Alexa spends much of Sketchtasy trying to decide what to do with a friend's ashes, and they serve as a reminder of the death that everyone in the book carries with them:

If I threw Colin's ashes onto an audience here, I wonder if they would believe the ashes were real. Maybe people would discover chunks of bone — what would that make them feel? The ones who are familiar with the deaths of their friends. The ones who aren't.

The dead will always be with us, and the living will keep fucking themselves up because of it. Sketchtasy is a merry-go-round of drugs and sex and gossip and sex and drugs. I recommend reading it in long sittings, so the breathless sentences clamber into your brain all at once, like a party that is tipping over into a riot. Alexa is young and on fire and she never allows herself to stop, and she demands nothing less of her readers.

Make no mistake, though: this isn't some joyless slog through Bret Easton Ellis's cocaine nightmares. Alexa might not always be happy, but she is a great host, and she sees the beauty in the dancing and the youth and the drugs. You can't read this passage without seeing the blazing lights and smelling the sweet sweat and feeling the surge of a room full of abandon:

Joey's actually on the dance floor so I know she's really coked out and these beats yes these beats and that boy over there his eyes into my eyes I twirl around into jump rope, feet bouncing up and up and down, down, our feet together and turn, flip the floor, his eyes, give me more. And there's Billy through the lasers yelling fierce and Joey bouncing, I turn again pull breath up to arms swaying now I'm so close to this boy, his breath or mine, back around and when he moves his hips I rotate the bounce to move my moves into the space between his breath and the beat and maybe he can join us afterward, maybe we can drive over the Mass. Ave. Bridge for the sunrise, holding hands in the back seat oh the light yes these lights.

And even in her most sordid moments, Alexa finds ballads where nobody else bothers to look:

Oh, brown glass vial! Can you see my reflection in your curved surface, maybe just a hint of my eye checking the level? Oh, black cap, such a comfortable place for my nose to rest. Oh, white powder in my head, my head in this house of shimmering white, yes, even the carpet on the stairs.

Sycamore has always been a passionate and keen-eyed chronicler of the life and death of American cities, but here she's doing the best work of her life, and for good reason: she's writing for her life. With Sketchtasy, she's an avenging angel.

Books in this review:
  • Sketchtasy
    by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
    Arsenal Pulp
    September 30, 2018
    256 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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