By Jamika Ajalon
Jamika Ajalon’s “Skye Papers” begins after things have fallen apart for the eponymous young hero. It’s mid-September 1992, and Skye sits in Washington Square Park with a notebook, attempting to reconstruct the last year of her life in all its drug-muddled, lust-driven, big-mistakes glory.
The story flashes back from there:
Skye is a high-achieving motherless queer Black kid from the St. Louis suburbs. A University of Chicago dropout, she hotfoots it to New York on the strength of a Greyhound hookup. There she falls in, fatefully, with a pair of glamorous bohemians, Scottie and Pieces, who take Skye into their fold as they tumble from artist’s studio to squat, from rave to houseboat, from New York to London to Amsterdam.
Once in London, Skye (a poet), Scottie (a musician) and Pieces (a painter) form their own small art movement. They resist capitalism, plan glorious raves in their Brixton squat (the “Trashed Palace”) and break into the city’s art scene. Skye learns to shoplift, busk and live on pasta — in short, to make that crucial break with what the poet Fernando Pessoa once called “organized, clothed society.”
Art begets art as these characters, inspired by the scene and one another, remix, freestyle and rhyme in their warehouse squat. The soundtrack is garage and soul, Cypress Hill, P-Funk, Nirvana; it’s impossible not to feel the contact high. The utopian future beckons.
Or does it? Interspersed with Skye’s narrative are uncanny moments: artifactual surveillance reports, odd coincidences, seeming anachronisms that raise questions of the narrator’s reliability. A mystery — whose full import isn’t revealed until the jaw-dropping final section — bleeds into consciousness, a Borgesian puzzle in which we catch glimpses of familiar events through a disembodied lens.
Meanwhile, Skye looks like a free spirit but she has an interiority that doesn’t quite match. “I was me,” she thinks, “brought up to be one of the proud talented 10 percent, and was now practically begging for money.” Throughout the novel, she writes away at what another character derisively calls her “lil Black Kerouacian adventures,” the granular articulation of Skye’s movements from shy notebook-jotter to open mic barnburner to spectacular flop to un-self-conscious maker. “Husky brass notes jazzed in, punctuating and sliding over the rhythms. Celebratory sounds tunneled my throat,” Skye thinks at a rave. “I had forgotten that I was there with other people. Or it felt like we were one people vibing on the same energy. There was only ‘us.’”
Ultimately, “Skye Papers” asks: What does it mean to accept yourself as an artist while also coming to understand how very compromised you are under capitalism? If to be an artist is to be conscious, then what happens to the artist whose consciousness is compromised? As Ajalon explores these questions, she repeatedly invokes other renditions of the portrait of the artist, from “On the Road” to Audre Lorde’s “Zami: A New Spelling of My Name” to De La Soul’s “The Magic Number.”
“Skye Papers” may be Ajalon’s first novel, but she is an experienced artist: a sonic slam poet, musician, multimedia performer and filmmaker with a deep back catalog, evident on every page. From the rhythmic, riffing, incantatory prose to the novel’s cinematic crosscutting and recursive structure, to the minutiae of Skye and her friends’ daily struggles as artists, we get lost in a world that Ajalon renders with a precision and lyricism that elude her main character.
There’s an image early in “Skye Papers” I keep coming back to — Skye, having decided to leave her high school boyfriend, sits by the lake in Chicago. She’s about to throw away something consequential, when she’s distracted by two men hooking up on the rocks below. “I thought about my session with Scottie in the Greyhound,” Skye writes. “Started getting ideas about New York. More impulse than plan. A quick fix for a sulky heart.” I’m not convinced by Skye’s younger self’s assessment. Is she impulsive or is she an artist, attracted ineffably to beauty and freedom?