‘Sketchtasy,’ A Novel of Coming of Age Amid AIDS

Issue 242

Eleanor Bader Dec 20, 2018

Lambda Literary Award winner Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore has described herself as “a genderqueer faggot, and a queen, on the trans continuum, in a gender-bending, gender-blur kind of place.” The same can be said of Alexa, the protagonist of Sycamore’s intensely atmospheric and poignant ninth book (and third novel), Sketchtasy.

It’s 1995. Alexa, a 21-year-old college dropout, is living in Boston, turning tricks, dancing till dawn, and ingesting monumental quantities of cocaine, doxepin, ecstasy, ketamine, marinol, Xanax, and weed, all of it washed down with an array of alcohol-soaked concoctions.

For the moment, life seems to be a 24/7 party.

That said, there’s a heaviness to Alexa and her inner circle, all of them equally mired in drugs, booze, and sexual adventuring. For Alexa, it’s the unshakeable specter of incest and the haunting memories of her psychiatrist father’s blatant disregard for her bodily autonomy. For Polly, it’s the aftermath of growing up queer in a fundamentalist Christian home, while for Avery it’s a struggle over racial identity.    

But their torment extends far beyond the personal as AIDS lurks over every encounter—remember, use of antiretroviral medications was not widespread in 1995 and gay men, IV drug users, and sex workers were dying by the tens of thousands —no matter how frivolous, light, or joyful they seem. On one hand, Alexa’s social group eschews convention, dressing in all manner of colorful, mismatched clothing and grabbing attention by pretending that every locale, from a random sidewalk to a grocery story produce aisle, is a runway on which to strut their stuff; on the other, they are palpably fatalistic, fearful, and tearful when submitting to their periodic blood tests.

Still, unlike the previous generation, these Gen Xers are not interested in activism and rarely engage with groups like ACT-UP. What’s more, they barely talk about the virus or discuss how best to protect themselves. Indeed, it comes as a shock when one of their pals announces that his t-cell count has plummeted to five, prompting him to move back to his parents Brandywine, Delaware home for his final weeks. Alexa is jolted by this, of course, and for a time stops drinking and drugging, but this proves to be a short-lived experiment in sobriety. Nonetheless, the scenario is evocative and moving.

Sketchtasy captures moments like this with rare precision and even if you, as a reader, have never intersected with anything approximating Alexa’s world, Sycamore’s prose will make you feel the immediacy of the era for this particular tribe of young adults.   

As should be clear by now, Sketchtasy is not a typical coming-of-age tale. And, while the narrative can be criticized for being shorter on plot than it is on character and description, it is also a sharply observed showcase for the ways people support each other, alienate each other, and simply mark time with each other.

As readers witness Alexa’s struggle to love herself, Sycamore suggests that it is possible to surmount abuse, neglect, and negative experiences.  “We’re brought up to hate ourselves, and we can go beyond that,” Alexa says early in the novel. Indeed, as #metoo has affirmed, it’s essential that we do so.

By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018

Photo Credit: Alexander Popov.

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