In the beginning of Hervé Guibert’s autofictional novel To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, he describes the book he’s writing as a “companion […] someone with whom I can talk, eat, sleep, at whose side I can dream and have nightmares, the only friend whose company I can bear […]”. Over the course of the book—which details the paranoid rumors, depersonalized medical tests, and personal losses Guibert absorbs amidst the early days of the AIDS crisis—this friendship ranges from love to fear to hate to angry anguish, from tender, terrified intimacies to numb catalogues of events.
This book is not merely a work of embodied writing, is not some controllable, neatly comprehensible extension of Guibert.
This book—this friend—is its own willful body, a body that changes, suffers, mourns, and even revolts against both its writer and reader.
I have come to feel a similarly complicated friendship with Sketchtasy by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, a book I’ve carried with me for well over a year, through seven different moves, through seven different living spaces, through an ever-shifting rotation of rooms, sensations, and moods.
I read the first part of Sketchtasy in an apartment in Spokane, lying on a mattress in my underwear, all the windows closed, while black wildfire smoke consumed the air outside. I was on page 61 when the ceiling of my bedroom gashed open, gushed radiator water, and forced me to move (I can tell because the pages stick together, there).
I read the second half of Sketchtasy at my mother-in-law’s house in Newington, sipping coffee at her kitchen table. It was late fall, and there was a plastic bag over the kitchen’s window AC unit. The gentle respiration of this bag—filling and emptying, filling and emptying—became the soundtrack of my reading, as I absorbed the narrator’s day-to-day rhythms: shoplifting from bougie stores, dyeing her hair and dressing up in pay-by-the pound thrifted finery, moving from club to club and party to party in a euphoric, anxious, and frustrated drug-heightened haze.
I brought Sketchtasy with me on my move to Europe, one of the few books I could fit into my backpack, along with To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life. I retraced the shifts of its narrator among liminal living arrangements, as I too moved between friends’ apartments in Berlin (I even thought about leaving my copy of Sketchtasy as a thank you gift for my host, but I found an-other more pristine copy lovingly framed on his shelf between Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl and Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?).
I brought Sketchtasy with me to Prague, Budapest, and Szombathely, where I lived and taught for six months at a university, rereading it in-between classes, in rooms with chalk dust and teal soviet-era tile, bookmarking and scribbling weird nervous notes of connection in the margins. I had Sketchtasy with me when COVID-19 first broke out, and I found myself stuck in my Szombathely dorm room apartment, in a country where I didn’t speak the language, re-processing all of these lines about trauma, uncertainty, and AIDs in the 90s with new resonance. I brought Sketchtasy back on my series of flights on almost empty planes, through almost empty airports, to a car my parents left for me, to a cabin by Lake Michigan my parents bought last year, an unfamiliar place I’d never even visited before. In this strange cabin—where I feel like a stranger, like a squatter amidst a pandemic, amidst all these video calls and the gauzy days blurring together—I’m reading Sketchtasy again, and contemplating all the many permutations of my kinship with this book.
Much like the narrator of To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life re-evaluates his identity and relationships in the midst of the AIDS crisis (amidst the strange loneliness he feels), the young queer narrator of Sketchtasy, Alexa, struggles to process her own past traumas in the 90s Boston gay scene (the specter of the virus ever-looming). Alexa moves from a toxic environment (including an emotionally and sexually abusive father) to a living situation that seems promising on the surface, a big Victorian house shared by a revolving cast of fellow queers and social misfits. It quickly becomes clear, however, that even among Alexa’s supposed peers, even in this space where she “should” feel a sense of belonging, she feels like an outsider: observing and deconstructing her environment with ruthlessly dark humor. She assesses her fellow queers with the kind of scathing honesty that could only come from a mixed place of loving and loathing: “She’s the most ridiculous person on earth […] As far as I know, she’s never even put on a dress, but she talks like she’s the mother of the House of Webstah, Mass.” Alexa’s housemates refer to her as “Miss One,” a wry commentary on her intellectual removal from their activities. Even when she’s physically present in the room, Alexa feels alone: “Miss One” who has no partner, has no sympathetic other.
Alexa feels weary of the privilege-blind, assimilationist queerness she observes around her, of empty, performative, expected gestures (like her housemates dancing to the Priscilla, Queen of The Desert soundtrack and the gay men and allies who wear red AIDS ribbons). She’s tired of defending her veganism against the carelessness of her meat-eating housemates, and many passag-es of the book are devoted to her (highly relatable) quest for food she can actually eat, can actually survive on (as she and her companions migrate from club to club, party to party, in a drug and alcohol-induced haze). Alexa’s searching, scanning perspective is narrated in a vivid, constantly fluid stream, not a stream of consciousness so much as a stream of shifting sensation:
Just thinking about walking upstairs I start to feel sad in that way that feels like it will never end—at least I had that Xanax last night, but what am I going to do when I run out of the samples from my father’s medicine cabinet—don’t worry about that now, I probably still have fifty. I open the refrigerator-oh, I’m so glad I got this hummus and tabouli-Polly, do you want some hummus and tabouli? I put the pita bread on the table, and we dip it in—oh, this is delicious. Polly’s smoking in between tiny bites and I eat pretty much the whole container of hummus, which makes sense because I hardly ate anything yesterday—oh, wait, is that really the same glass of orange juice on the table, I mean I don’t usually believe in doing drugs in the morning but this isn’t really the morning, is it? An apple a day keeps the doctor away, but a quarter glass of ecstasy-laced orange juice—yes, just the right amount to bring that softness back to my head, okay now I’m ready for my shower yes this shower is amazing I can’t believe I didn’t try this yesterday […]
(Maybe it’s worth noting that orange juice becomes a significant motif in Sketchtasy: a life force, a consumable brightness, an uncanny liquid color.)
Every mundane surface Alexa’s gaze scans over feels charged, tingling with the hyper-vigilant awareness of someone who’s survived past trauma. Everything she touches has the potential to hurt or comfort, to drain or nourish her. Living in this charged reality, Alexa’s ability to read her surroundings-to assessingly read those around her-is a matter of survival.
This book is not merely a work of embodied writing, a friend inviting us to inhabit her narrative skin.
This book is an exploration of reading as a mode of existence, a means of making your way through the world within a (necessarily hyper-aware, hyper-vigilant) queer body.
Recontemplating Sketchtasy amidst a global pandemic, I more deeply appreciate how the specter of illness—the threat of infection—reverberates within the act of reading ones environ-ment. The act of reading contains suggestive multitudes, sometimes brandished as a playful threat-“don’t make me reeeeead you, Miss One”–sometimes used as an aggressive attempt to explore an attraction, or identify a stranger’s character–“Someone opens the bathroom door, stares at my hair and says you look like a parrot. She thinks she’s reading me–I lick my lips and say thank you, honey.” Reading can be an act of venturing toward another person, a way of evaluating how close you are, and how close you can potentially get. And among fellow queers who possess a shared language, if not always a shared understanding—reading can be a means of evaluating others critical capacities: “She thinks she’s reading me”: i.e. Sorry, nope, not even close.
In an atmosphere of heightened viral threat, fear, and paranoia, the act of reading—and the act of reading others’ attempts toward reading—is also self-protective. When riding the train with her friend Polly, Alexa encounters a homophobic man who aggressively calls them “gay.” Alexa attempts to deflect his reading in the way she might deflect an unwanted come-on at a club—“Honey […] I’m a faggot”—in hopes of diffusing the tension, but he only becomes more violently angry, slamming his hand against the seat in front of him, yelling about how “that faggot’s gonna give him AIDS.”
I think of the masks—the layers of social performance—queer bodies must armor themselves with.
I think of the people who refuse to wear masks (we all know who they are), how their refusal is less a gesture of defiance than a flag of their fearful denial (their projection of anxiety out-ward, away from their own potentially infected bodies).
I think of the people who try to appear less Asian, less Black, less Other, less visible in public.
But even in the quiet moments—within those mundane movements that make up most of our quarantined days-surfaces remain charged. Our senses remain alert, on guard. We mentally scan the staircase, the refrigerator door, our own hungry insides, with heightened sensation, with cautionary dread.
The days blur together. I check the news. I check the lock on the door. I check my reflection in the mirror (for what precisely, I’m not sure). My heart jumps over an unidentifiable house sound: what was that? I hear some neighbor way off in the distance, no, no, close, no, way too close—firing a gun—going pop, pop, pop, pop, pop. I make list upon list upon list upon list, and I know I’m forgetting something, something major, something essential for making it through the next day, the next week, the next month, maybe the rest of my life. I start making a will. I realize there’s nothing to put in my will. In place of pills and cocktails—Alexa’s chosen analgesics-I reread the same books, re-watch the same TV shows. I reconsider the same moments, the same images. I read them. I reprocess them.
Sometimes, my reading is productive. Sometimes, I recall the missing line on my list. But mostly, I just list. Re-list. Re-listen. Self-revising.
Though Alexa feels alienated within Boston queer culture, she has many different kinds of friends and friendships. Indeed, this sense of alienation is less the product of an underwhelmed, friendless individual than someone who’s overwhelmed with friendship: so many different shades of friendship, so many ever-changing subtle genres of friendship, so many varying degrees of closeness and separation. As Alexa moves from her Victorian house to other even more temporary living situations, she forges intense connections with friends, connections that feel heightened, burning so brightly that their liminality-their imminent expiration-is always flickering just beneath the surface (and all this blurry, bright-burning intensity is obviously—aptly—dialed up by the ever-presence of drugs). Alexa gleefully reinvents not only herself, but her surroundings with these friends. An ordinary street becomes a fashion runway. Thrift store garments become haute couture. The John Hancock tower becomes Jeannine Hancockatiel: a constant friend within the city skyline, “revealing her true nature, yes nature or nurture, I mean nature and nurture.”
When Alexa pursues sex work for money, she also processes her identity, her past traumas with previous identities, and questions of who she will let in, how close she will let people get. With most clients, she uses her old name—Tyler—as a kind of mask, a way to distance herself from (hilariously awful) sexual encounters with people she has no interest in knowing:
[…] he keeps saying Tyler, I love you, I love you, I love you, Tyler. And then he grabs my head and pulls me right up to his face and says it: Say it, Tyler, tell me that you love me.
There’s a lot I’ll do for tricks—role play, fantasies, whatever—but I’m not going to say I love you. That’s just demeaning.
After multiple re-reads, these sex work passages continue to be some of my favorites in the book.They so precisely capture the sensation of inhabiting multiple layers of reality at once-your former name, your faux identity, the person this other person wants you to be, some semblance of your necessarily self-protective, self-aware, physically present self—while also floating above all these realities, gauzily removed from them:
I can’t even enjoy my high because he’s pulling at my dick and scratching at my ass-hole, telling me how beautiful it is. Oh it’s so beautiful, he keeps saying, and I’m trying not to fart.
(Oh, the absurdity of having and being a body, of selling the romance surrounding a thing that farts!)
Alexa also spends a lot of time on the phone having emotionally harrowing conversations with friends in other cities, friends from her recent and distant past lifetimes (when they were all trying on different ideas, different identities, navigating their own personal crises). As with her sex work, Alexa drifts through multiple layers of past and present selves in these conversations, discussing all the past issues that linger in their present lives, still unresolved, still in progress. In some sense, it seems that the people Alexa is closest to are the people who are not—or cannot—be-physically there with her (a feeling so many of us relate to at this moment, as we reach out to loved ones from our various states of necessary isolation).
I can barely handle video calls with my students: glitchy, front-facing static forms, bodies creepily chopped off at the shoulders, suspended in rooms so far away from me, in rooms I’ve never entered. I try to keep synchronous interactions to a minimum. I absolutely cannot handle video calls with my friends. Almost all of my conversation comes through online messengers, through little boxes with little “…” icons that indicate pauses, processing, words in progress.
My former students ask, “How are you doing in America? Are things all right?”
I hover over the “…” and settle on, “It’s kind of you to ask. Right now, I am in multiple layers of in-between space.”
I leave a conversation with another friend unfinished, walking away at dinner time, never returning. “I didn’t offend you, did I?” the neglected friend worries.
“Oh no! I’m sorry,” I tell them. “I just got lost in the rest of the day.”
In another conversation, a friend bemoans the ways we’re both reverting to old habits we haven’t had since we were teenagers, regressing into past selves.
I type, “It’s such a weird conundrum, this idea of the past self, this idea of life before. Now, we keep trying to go back to life before–to life as usual–when life before most likely no longer exists.”
At the same time, it’s hard not to feel like we’re all moving backward.
In the midst of writing this, one of my Hungarian students sends me an article headlined, “Hungary Ends Legal Recognition for Transgender People.” This student—a young queer person the same age as Alexa—writes to me about the extreme loneliness he feels, with such limited opportunities for finding romantic partners, quarantined with family members who cannot know he’s gay.
Just a few days later, I send him an almost identical article about the Trump Administration. “They have lost their humanity,” writes my student. “I don’t want to experience this obliteration.”
In Sketchtasy, Alexa is an avid reader and a thoughtful scholar of queer culture, examining her evolving relationships with films like Todd Haynes Poison, books like Rebecca Brown’s Gifts of the Body and David Wojnarowicz’s Memories That Smell Like Gasoline and Close to the Knives. These texts not only allow Alexa to explore questions of her own queer identity, but serve as time capsules through which she revisits past feelings, past versions of herself, and contemplates her own changes (especially as people she knows and feels close to become sick with the virus). When Alexa moves into the home of a wealthy older John named Nate—a man who’s just discovering his own queerness later in life—Alexa’s friendship with her books deepens even further. Living as a kind of “kept” partner for a man old enough to be her father (with whom she of course has a contentious relationship), reading is one of the few activities that makes her feel connected to herself (to the many private, beneath-the-surface layers of herself).
But eventually, Nate observes Alexa’s strong emotional responses to her books, and Alexa cautiously attempts to let him closer, to expand her readerly friendship. She offers to read Memories That Smell Like Gasoline and Close to the Knives along with Nate, approaching their shared reading as a kind of queer education for this newly self-discovering gay man. This attempt to let Nate in (and perhaps repair some connection to her father, by proxy) does not go very well:
I finish the first chapter way before Nate so I sit there and wait, sipping my cocktail and looking at his face until he looks at me and says: It’s a little much, Tyler—-it’s a lot to look at. And I think about how reading Close to the Knives was the first time I ever felt my own rage in print, and whether Nate thinks that’s what’s too much.
Later on, in the course of reading Memories That Smell Like Gasoline, Nate similarly criticizes David Wojnarowicz’s illustrations-of himself as a child, of his encounters with illness, of his encounters with a man telling him not to worry—as “child pornography.” Alexa feels defensive-“like he’s criticizing [her] life” and wonders, “How we were so close yesterday or the day before, and what does it mean to feel that close, when you’re not really close?” On the next page, however, Nate and Alexa seem to share a brief moment of silent understanding, looking at a graphic image of a man covered in lesions.
The irony of this connection, however, is that Nate is not the person Alexa feels she should be reading these books with. She wishes she could be reading them with Avery, a former friend and lover whose connection to Alexa has started to dissolve. As she reads with Nate, Alexa mentally pans back and forth in time, recalling intimate moments with Avery, imagining Avery into whatever fleeting connections she feels.
Living in isolation with my partner, there are moments when my books-when others’ words and voices-feel like potential vehicles for connection. But these connections can feel frustratingly imprecise. We only have single copies of the books that are most valuable to me (if even that, if my copies weren’t loaned from the now-closed library, or loaned out by me to others with whom I’d wanted to share some connection). So I read everything aloud, in portions, in fragments, filtered through my own voice. And these read-aloud-fragments can never really replicate those moments of solitude, curled up in a lonely ball against the wall of the bath tub, laughing, crying, bookmarking, annotating, bleeding private scrawls into the margins.
Worth noting: I also share my own writing-in-progress by reading aloud to my partner, by searching for words—to delete, to revise—in my reading voice.
By the end of To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, Hervé Guibert has experienced the death of his dearest friend and experienced callous abandonment by another. It’s clear, however, that the subject of his deepest loss is not a human being—not a human friend—but the book he’s been trying to write: the surrogate friend, “the only friend whose company I can bear […]”. In the course of writing this book-friend, Guibert reads Thomas Bernhard’s Perturbation, and feels in-creasingly pissed-off and self-defeated as his body grows weaker and weaker with AIDS. Guibert grows to despise Bernhard because he is “undeniably” a better writer than he is, “and yet he was only a superficial scribbler, a dabbler, a chop-logic filling up space, a purveyor of syllogistic truisms, a tubercular innocent […], a blowhard who did everything better than everyone else.” Guibert recognizes himself and his own writerly aspirations in Bernhard’s book, which makes him hate it all the more, makes him feel robbed of the only “friend” he felt he had left. As he grows nearer and nearer to death, Guibert bemoans his folly: “I, poor Guibert […] I pulled out all the stops to make myself the equal of this modern master, I, poor little Guibert, ex-master of the world who found himself bested by both Thomas Bernhard and AIDS.”
This is the moment in my essay—or review, or whatever it is—where I’m supposed to really bring it, bring you close. Where I’m supposed to make you feel something. Where I’m supposed to make you feel that reading this thing has not been a waste of your time. Where I’m supposed to make you feel something I feel. Where I’m supposed to prove that Hervé Guibert and Mattilda Benstein Sycamore and me and you-whoever you are-we’re all friends.
So I’ll put you right here in my parents’ basement. I’ll outline your shape in that cobwebby corner, by the sheet-covered couch they no longer use. By that wooden cigar box of old family photos and belongings, the one I used to bring into my Intro to Fiction classroom. I’d tell my students to pick one of these objects, to try and imagine the story within in, to fill in the unknowns, to answer their own questions, to write out an object owner, to detail, describe, invent a friend. You can trace a whole story with objects: who sees them, who holds them, and how they evolve as we evolve, I’d tell my students. Objects are containers of change.
I’m surrounded by boxes of books, by piles of loose books, picking them out, and holding them up, and sorting them in “to keep” stacks and “to leave.” I feel weird about doing this, knowing I haven’t seen, read, or even thought about most of these books in over a year. I was separated from them by a literal ocean. These books were so far removed, so distant from me.
I feel weird about culling through these books, not knowing whether I’ll be re-hired at my old university-or hired elsewhere-or if I even want to be rehired, with all the risks involved. I don’t know which books will be of use for future-maybe classes. I don’t know if/when—if/ever–I will teach those classes. Part of me feels a sense of loss, not just over the notion of putting some books in the “to leave” stack, but the layers of past selves I’ve secreted away into these pages. I’ve been trying to share some semblance of these layers with my students, with my teaching, with these classroom performances of friendly reading, but what is ever really shared of us, in reading, in writing, befriending a book?
You see what I’m doing, here, right? You see all these gestures I’m making, and maybe you’re smiling, and nodding, and thinking, okay, okay, I get it. Or maybe you’re pissed off at me, because I’m no Thomas Bernhard, no master of language, no “purveyor of syllogistic truisms.” Maybe you’re mad at me for the reasons I’m mad at myself: for my cowardice, waving away all these strands of my past, of that now no-longer real life before.
I’m not as brave as Alexa, who spends the final moments of Sketchtasy spreading a dead friend’s ashes around Boston. She watches a woman walk over “a bit of bone” and imagines prancing down a runway of ashes: “the runway of our destiny, grinding ash into cement.” Above her, in the background, she sees the gleaming shape of her old friend, the tower she’s lovingly named Jeannine Hancockatiel.
“Doesn’t Jeannine look beautiful in this light? That’s because she looks beautiful in every light.”
A testament to her survival.
A question of what survives.
Meghan Lamb is the author of All of Your Most Private Places (Spork Press, 2020) and Silk Flowers (Birds of Lace, 2017). She recently served as the Philip Roth Writer-in-Residence at Bucknell University, and she has taught English and Creative Writing at Eötvös Loránd University, the University of Chicago, Interlochen Center for the Arts, and Washington University in St. Louis. Her work has appeared in Quarterly West, DIAGRAM, Redivider, and Passages North, among other publications. She currently serves as the Nonfiction Editor of Nat. Brut, a journal of art and literature dedicated to advancing inclusivity in all creative fields.