When I first read this book, I assumed it was a memoir, but the interview with Mattilda that the publisher enclosed with my review copy states that it’s a novel. Hmm. It reads like a memoir and shuns the conventions of a novel, such as character development and a linear progression of an idea, but it’s experimental prose, so it’s going to be one of those love-it-or-hate-it books for many readers. I’ll admit right off that I’m not a huge fan of stream-of-consciousness writing. However, my standing rule is to judge a book by what it is, not what it isn’t. So what is So Many Ways to Sleep Badly?
On one hand, you could say it’s a trip to the other side of the tracks, unless you live on the brink of poverty in San Francisco, are an anti-assimilationist queer activist, an incest survivor, and suffer from a chronic illness that makes you so fragile that you can’t even sleep. These identities give Mattilda a far different perspective on San Francisco and queer culture than you’ll read in mainstream queer media. That jolt of fresh insight is a good reminder that even within a community, not everyone has the same agenda, ambitions, or beliefs.
Ah – but we review erotica at Erotica Revealed, so what does this book have to do with erotica? Mattilda is a whore. She doesn’t mince words about it, so I won’t either. She writes honestly about her tricks, and there are a lot of them.
“… because I’m a sucker for any ridiculous song about hookers. What’s the line? Something about giving up their bodies for a thousand other men. Rue says a thousand – I think I’m up around five thousand. And five of them were fun.”
Her tricks range from the pathetic: “My cellphone rings, this guy wants to know if I have a discount for married guys with kids.” “Another trick that wants to know if I have any diseases, he doesn’t want to bring anything home to his wife.”
To the absurd: “Andrew’s from Seattle, he gives me a ride home and tries to shake my hand goodbye. Sorry honey – you just sucked my cock – I think we can kiss.”
To the rare times he enjoys it: “This trick shows up and he’s so hot, preppy boy with a shaved head and lots of freckles – and he’s grinning at me. Right away, we’re making out and it’s totally sex, soft and hard and warm and connected.”
Beyond sex for pay, Mattilda also writes about cruising for sex on Craigslist, in the park, and at Power Exchange, even though she rarely finds what she’s looking for and often vows never to return.
“I go to the Power Exchange. I know what you’re thinking: why does she break her own rules - it’ll only lead to disaster, and it does honey, it does. I can’t even describe how boring and awful it is, but I’m a writer – that’s my job.”
That passage made me laugh, and reminded me of the e-mail conversation Mattilda and I had several years ago about sex at venues such as Nob Hill Theater and Power Exchange being a form of performance art. If only it had that much creativity. She seems to seek temporary transcendence in sex. Occasionally, it happens. Usually, it doesn’t.
At the beginning of the novel, there’s hope for a relationship. Those very honest moments with Jeremy are the most erotic in the novel, probably because of the emotional vulnerability. The romantic in me wanted to see it work out, but this story is about real life, so of course it doesn’t end that way. Mattilda writes: “I thought this novel was turning into a love story, but now Jeremy’s fucking that up.” It isn’t what you’d think – Mattilda’s sex work isn’t what drives them apart. Mattilda wants someone to cuddle with. Jeremy doesn’t want to be bothered with a boyfriend because it’s too much work to put another person first.The story loses energy and direction in the last couple chapters. Mattilda throws names around with no clear definition of who the characters are or their relation to her. There is no resolution. No one learns anything. Instead, everyone clings tighter to what they are when challenged. Revelations are on a small scale, and not life-changing. As a novel, So Many Ways to Sleep Badly doesn’t really work, but as a fictionalized memoir, it does. If you have even a little curiosity about life as a gay sex worker, this novel will fascinate you. Despite the experimental style of prose, I found it interesting and funny.