The skin of the unconscious, ripped open

For better or worse — and I would say for better, and worse — there’s only one city that’s truly felt like home to me, and that’s San Francisco. The first time it felt this way was in 1994, and that had a lot to do with JoAnne. We taught each other to breathe and to chew, basic survival skills that we didn’t have because we had to survive, I’m quoting my first novel here, so you see how fiction can offer the truth, I don’t have to use quotation marks because I wrote it.

JoAnne and I shared our anger like a hug — we broke down but we held each other and this breaking down became a sort of formation in a flat we shared with two others on an alley called Sycamore, yes, where I found my last name. But I’d already decided to leave, and maybe that’s also why it felt like home, the way you’re about to flee and then you can feel the potential of staying. I was 21, JoAnne was 20, and we knew our friendship would last forever, this hug, but when I moved back to San Francisco a year later that already felt like another lifetime, it was because JoAnne was already dead. Her yearning was too great for the queer worlds we thought might hold us, queer worlds that often harmed as much as they held. And, just as brutally, a healthcare system that had no interest in helping junkie dykes to do anything but die.

This is San Francisco, or the San Francisco that made and unmade me, it’s always everything at once, and holding on doesn’t necessarily help you to hope. But when I moved there the third time, at the end of 2000, somehow it felt like home again. I mean I felt like I could breathe, and this time I lived in the Tenderloin, where Daphne Gottlieb’s latest book, Pretty Much Dead, mostly takes place. The Tenderloin was a different kind of home for me than the home I experienced with JoAnne in the Mission that once invoked all my dreams but then they just became nightmares—dreams of creating queer worlds to replace the violence of the world that formed us, to replace and to challenge, to imagine something else, something bolder and more defiant, rigorous and unencumbered by anything except ideals.

By 2000 I no longer believed in these worlds as they existed, although I still believed in the ideals—the dream of relationships that get deeper and deeper, and when you have nothing else to reveal you just go even further. The dream of creating love and lust and intimacy and accountability on our own terms. The dream of creating relationships through political engagement, and political engagement through relationships. I was still trying to make all this happen, again, and what I liked about the Tenderloin was that it was a neighborhood where no one belonged. And so we all belonged. Or, that’s what it felt like for me, anyway. I could imagine this possibility, and it could hold me.

Home to me means living in a place with a history of my own making, and more importantly a future that I can imagine. Eventually I couldn’t imagine a future in San Francisco anymore, or a future that felt like anything but loss, and so that’s why I left.

Pretty Much Dead is a collection of stories about the people left behind, the people who have already left and now they can’t leave anymore, the people trapped by drug addiction and poverty and breakdowns both internal and external, collapsing the boundaries between body and feeling, feeling and meaning, meaning and meaningless. Ness. Do you see how ness becomes its own word? Van Ness, the border of this neighborhood, or just ness as the end of the word trapped and free, at least something can be.

These people, living in residence hotels in the densest and poorest neighborhood in the city, clogged with experience and longing, where hope becomes another form of hopelessness and then there’s the world that treats you like trash. There’s a social worker too, and she’s trying to help. She’s failing. She’s failing miserably, and helping anyway, how this is the exception to the rule of no exception, not exceptional but a possibility. (Daphne Gottlieb is a social worker.)

This is not a book about possibility — it’s about the skin of the unconscious, ripped open. To say it’s about mental illness, about poverty or addiction, about structural oppression, is to limit its grasp, because it’s really about feeling. Not feeling. Feeling the not-feeling so hard it becomes a hole in the atmosphere. Pretty Much Dead is a wrecking ball inside a cry for help inside a wrecking ball.

Daphne Gottlieb is the author of five books of poetry, the editor of two anthologies, and the co-creator of a graphic novel. This might be her first book described as stories, but it feels more like she’s channeling the voices of people who are broken, and the people watching the people break. The dreams that are so far inside, they manifest as violence. The violence so close to the surface that it feels like a dream. The outside looking in, and the inside looking out. The observer, the observation, the failure of both.

This is present-day San Francisco, more or less, a city of real-estate speculation, the state of speculation, how speculation becomes real. The buildings are burning down because they are worth more money that way. “Something torn apart was being repaired. Or something.”

These are not stories, they are missives from the unconscious. They are conscious. They are that “LOST CAT” flyer that’s been up for months:

“LOST CAT” was the first track of his first album. Because they’re all lost. There’s a generation of lost cats out there. Cool cats. Hep cats. Cat-callin’ the cattle cat-as-trophes. He wrote it and people haven’t stopped dancing. He’s got to get into the studio again. He’s got to get his kids back. He’s got to get some money.

Everything becomes literal, taking us in and out of fact. Buildings turned inside-out like your stomach while you’re vomiting. Narrative in threads. It’s the trauma of survival. And the trauma. Always more trauma. A shipwreck without water becomes water without a ship:

She popped the cork. The ocean poured out. She swam until there were no horizons and what was water and what was air. Until there was no difference between the taste of champagne and sand and tears. And then she poured other glass, sitting on the sidewalk, wearing water wings, watching the shoes swim by. There were so many shoes.

How the imagination can and cannot save us: “You have followed a trail of words here and now you can see: These words are candles. This is a requiem. You have read one candle for each of the people who died on the street.”

But then, when the names are read, they are the names of celebrities, because celebrities have names, even when they die of the same causes as people without names: drug addiction, pneumonia, heart disease, heartache, murder, suicide, cancer. “There is an endless supply of candles.”

Can we live without living, this book asks. The answer is yes, for better and worse. And the answer is no. Depending on how you define living. Who gets to define it: “When she gets to the building with the window, she can’t figure out which window it is, but the door is locked anyway.”

Books in this review:
  • Pretty Much Dead
    by Daphne Gotlieb
    Ladybox Books
    July 20, 2015
    234 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy online

About the writer

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is most recently the author of The End of San Francisco.

Follow Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore on Twitter: @mbsycamore

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