Winner of a Lambda Literary Award for her memoir “The End of San Francisco,” Sycamore finds both West Coast cities to be “not empty, but flat. Flattened. Like I was living a life I already knew, but there wasn’t enough life.” In the cyclical boomtown of Seattle, where she loves that “people walk around in the pouring rain like nothing’s happening,” her rent went up 70 percent in four years and few people want to make plans.
“Everyone says they want to catch up — I mean when they actually call me back. But I want relationships where we don’t have to catch up. Sometimes I feel like an entire culture has misplaced something. And it’s everything.”
“The Freezer Door” is alive with the existential nausea of being displaced “in this town where most [people] will not even meet my eyes they will not say hello they will not reply to a smile or wave or a wayward glance, except with a glance in the opposite direction.”
With the probing, restless spirit of the flâneuse, Sycamore traces topographies of hurt and want during long walks on Seattle streets mapped with the same precision shown to Boston in her third novel, “Sketchtasy.”
In Seattle’s collection of small neighborhoods that together pass for a city, saying hello startles passersby into looking at their phones. Anything to avoid our shared humanity. For Sycamore, the daily insult is magnified when those who evade her searching gaze are queer. To feel marginalized on the fringes is to fall out of time. Juxtaposing flashbacks of familiar harm with blissful dancing in thrift store finds, Sycamore investigates the loneliness of late capitalism, wherein oppression is internalized as shame.
In “Cruising: An Intimate History of a Radical Pastime,” Alex Espinoza, who teaches creative writing at the University of California at Riverside, delves into this “world of secret exchanges, of fleeting acts of intimacy occurring in public places” where gay sex has been recorded since humanity invented writing. But the specter of what Espinoza called “true cruising,” which “allows people to set the terms of their own desire and both leave satisfied,” eludes Sycamore. Craving more than momentary lust, and yet needing the relief of release, her presence remains tensed, disjointed.
Sex in parks can be a problem. While claiming her right to public spaces that sometimes make her and others feel unsafe, she describes recurrent nonconsensual penetration during orgies en plein-air. Whether unwitting witness or eager participant, it is a tricky thing to negotiate the terms of a stranger’s body in the open, concealed only by rhododendron bushes and “the cedar grove with winding old trees that have trunks so wide they angle out from the ground like living boats.”
Freedom of sexual expression has rarely been an option for queer people punished, hurt and killed for innate longings, even when hidden in homes where privacy is no defense against violation and disappointment. A survivor of sexual abuse, a former sex worker and the editor of five award-winning anthologies about queer culture, Sycamore wants to preserve the possibility for sharing fervid joys foreclosed by heteronormative bureaucracy.
She rebels against viewing straight privileges, like marriage and military involvement, as queer goals. Unmake the patriarchy that governs gay culture, and instead fight for housing and health care, she argues. “Feminism is the politic that has helped me to articulate myself, and queer is my embodied practice of staying alive. But I worry that queer spaces have become places where the illusion of critical thinking hides the policing of thought. I don’t want any team to win, I want to end winning.”
The sheer density of ideas in this subversive memoir hovers at an exponentially higher level than most books, which build to major revelations choreographed over a three-act structure that is the calcified legacy of dead men. Pushing the boundaries of her mellifluous stream-of-consciousness style, there is little respite in “The Freezer Door.” The rigor and clarity of her thinking may not be evident to those who need character and plot development through linear narrative.
Akin to her ecstatic descriptions of dancing, where she expresses “emotion through motion, a flight into presence,” reading her prose is like watching someone burn themselves on heat of their own making, made frantic by the bared bulb of instinct. This book unfurls in one long feverish rush with philosophical crests and scenic meanders through clubs, bars and parks where, sober and toting condoms, Sycamore seeks connection that does not last.
Her alienation persists amid a constant sense of surveillance, whether in person or online. “People stare at me like I’m doing something horribly wrong, just because I’m doing something a tiny bit out of the ordinary.” Like relying on the satirical conceit that gives “The Freezer Door” its title — an ice cube embarks on a wide-ranging discussion with the tray that forms and confines it.
Whimsical and disaffected, that surreal dialogue provides a respite. Otherwise, this book brims with slippery sentences that reach their truths like rivers finding the sea. With an intellect that supersedes social boundaries through sheer insistence, Sycamore chronicles the paradox of inhabiting a fluid life in a rigid world.
Kristen Millares Young is the author of the novel “Subduction,” which was named a finalist for two International Latino Book Awards in 2020.
The Freezer Door
By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
Semiotext(e). 264 pp. $17.95