“One problem with gentrification is that it always gets worse,” writes Seattle author Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore in her new memoir, “The Freezer Door,” available Nov. 24. It’s a terse thesis statement for such an expansive, witty, perambulating book. In “The Freezer Door,” Sycamore wanders the streets of Seattle, searching for signs of humanity that have been obscured by the monolithic, glossy condominiums under construction on every corner.
“I’ve spent so much time trying to find the places and spaces where I can interact without feeling broken,” Sycamore writes, “but this hasn’t worked.”
A local literary dynamo who for the better part of the last decade could be found either in the audience or onstage at every Seattle-area literary event worth attending, Sycamore has become a nationally recognized thinker on LGBTQ+ issues — specifically concerning what it means to self-identify as queer in public spaces. As “gayborhoods” like Seattle’s Capitol Hill and the Mission in San Francisco become trendy hubs for wealthy young (and largely straight) tech workers, she laments the loss of the individuality and creativity of the earlier days of the LGBTQ+ movement — not to mention the intimacy.
“I’m searching for connection,” Sycamore says over the phone from her Capitol Hill apartment. “The dream of the city for me is the place where you find everything and everyone that you never imagined. And that’s the dream that I’m still trying to live, even as the city has changed so much.”
“Freezer Door” is Sycamore’s most significant work since her dazzling 2013 breakout memoir, “The End of San Francisco.” Set mostly on Capitol Hill from 2014 to 2016, not too long after she abandoned San Francisco for the final time, the new book follows Sycamore as she visits Seattle’s emptying bathhouses and seeks out furtive late-night encounters in Volunteer Park.
But LGBTQ+ culture has changed. At a gay bar, Sycamore is astonished to find gay men who are “suddenly obsessed with football,” dressed up in gaudy team merch as they celebrate a Seahawks victory on the bar’s big-screen TV. “I’m grossed out at the cause but somehow still grateful that at least they’re expressing desire in a celebratory way,” Sycamore writes of the dancing men. But then the cheering “gives way to chants of U-S-A and I’m chilled by how quickly excessive masculinity escalates into patriotism meaning war.”
A careless reader might classify Sycamore as a misanthrope. “The Freezer Door” is almost entirely an internal monologue, narrated by someone who feels desperately detached from society against her will. But Sycamore resists that interpretation; this is not a “Notes from the Underground” for the 21st century. She’s not closed off from the world; rather, she’s painfully eager to receive human connection. Sycamore is amazed by the miracle of having a body that can perpetually give and receive pleasure, and she is scandalized by the tragedy of a society that insists you feel guilty about that pleasure, and keep it to yourself.
In one chapter, a hypermasculine man sits next to Sycamore on the bus and proceeds to aggressively manspread, his thighs spilling over into her seat. “I try to take up as little space as possible, but that always ends up hurting my body so this time I think why not just let my leg rest against his,” Sycamore writes. That awkward closeness — a pair of clothed legs brushing against each other on public transportation — eventually becomes something almost holy: “When I breathe in, he breathes out — that’s how close our bodies are.”
“The Freezer Door” is made up of an episodic series of diary-honest confessions that read like short dramatic monologues. Sycamore read early drafts of “The Freezer Door” at events around town — most notably the late, lamented Furnace Reading Series and the Hugo House’s Literary Series — documenting her life fastidiously until “I was shocked to realize that I had a thousand pages.”
“I’m a really neurotic editor, and so I’m always just cutting, cutting, cutting — taking away anything that gets in the way of what I’m trying to do,” Sycamore says. She slashed the book down to a trim 250 pages, and kept burnishing the text for months to make sure every word was exactly where it needed to be.
There’s no narrative propulsion to speak of in “The Freezer Door,” no overarching plot. Instead, the structure of the book is what coaxes readers along. Some chapters are just a few tiny, despairing sentences. Some joyous descriptions of the pleasure of dancing in a mass of writhing, sweating bodies thrum on for a few pages. It’s such a compelling reading experience because Sycamore is in love with the endless possibilities of language, turning words inside out to find new meanings: “When someone says don’t take it personally,” Sycamore writes, “I feel like they’re telling me not to be a person.”
Late in “The Freezer Door,” Sycamore attends a literary event in which an old, white male author — the sort who academics breathlessly label a “literary lion” — is asked who his ideal audience is. “My ideal audience is dead,” replies the author with a straight face — meaning he’s writing not for the hundreds of living people who paid to see him speak, but rather for classical figures like Virgil and Homer.
“It’s hard to imagine anything more damaging to literature than questions about audience,” Sycamore writes. “Then again, it’s hard to imagine anything more damaging to literature than literature.”
At first, it’s hard for the reader to follow where Sycamore is going with these seemingly messy, disparate themes. She’s railing against the gentrification of Seattle, the commercialization of gay culture and the stultification of so-called “serious” literature. But it becomes clear in “The Freezer Door” that Sycamore believes these are all symptoms of the same central problem: With each passing year, our cities, our bodies and our literature are all becoming less human.
“A dominant narrative is always a form of erasure,” Sycamore writes. “How many people hide the scars, literal and figurative, in order to conform to what’s supposed to be?”
We are social animals. Communities make us human, and communities are nothing more than the shared stories we all agree to believe. Sycamore believes we’ve fallen under the sway of the wrong story, and that story is making us lonely and sick, alienating us from each other even as we live closer together than ever before.
In “The Freezer Door,” she’s out to tell a new story — one which redefines who we are and what we can become.