In high school, Michelle Tea’s memoir/novels Valencia and The Chelsea Whistle flooded my virgin imagination with hope and lust for the adventures I had to look forward to as an adult queer. I particularly remember her description of one relatively understated float in her parade of lovers and/or lovers of a woman she was seeing (that it’s hard to remember which should evoke the grandeur of the parade.) She wrote that she saw the sleeping woman’s mousy brown head poking out from under a blanket, and couldn’t recall when the sight had become a common occurrence. I couldn’t imagine not remembering the appearance of a naked woman in my bed. To me at 16, Michelle Tea sounded like some sort of sex millionaire. I would have preferred her wealth to actual money.
Enjoying every variety of romantic dalliance and drug, making art, surrounded by interesting, attractive artists, living in punk houses on bookstore wages — I longed for that life. While living vicariously through Michelle Tea, my band received a handful of invitations from feral older kids to play in their dilapidated houses papier-mached with probably load-bearing quantities of art, suggesting that world was nearly in reach. In retrospect, it wasn’t just the onset of my initiation that made what I perceived as the adult art world feel tantalizingly close. In her early work, Michelle Tea makes that life seem perhaps not easy, but attainable, the way the Ramones make playing great pop music seem easy.
The first half of Black Wave, Tea’s latest novel, gives only hints of being anything but memoir. These hints, like the environmental desolation of San Francisco, which seems extreme for a story set in 1999 are easily overlooked by anyone accustomed to Tea’s somewhat-fictionalized memoir. I was initially unsure whether the novel is post-apocalypic or just set during a terrible real-life drought. Even without any foreshadowing of the plot’s crazy straw twirl midway through the novel, what struck me most was a marked difference in the treatment of familiar Tea subject matter.
This is a grown-up artist’s novel. It’s not that the magic of early adulthood that seduced me as a teenager is gone, Black Wave just acknowledges the gravity of the author’s situation in her late twenties. Tea has the perspective to know she’s not invincible and that she never was, even at times when (because of youth or drugs) she thought she was. The lovers didn’t just come and go, the hair on her pillows harmlessly changing color — she broke hearts and was wounded herself, wounds whose depth was lost in the blur of addiction until she achieved sobriety. Though she didn’t realize it at the time, she could have OD’d, she could have wound up on the street.
Michelle Tea is often classified as a contemporary Beat, and one of my favorite things about Black Wave is that it eschews the Beat’s glamorization of poverty. The original Beats were primarily white men from middle class backgrounds. For many of these guys, poverty was a choice, something daring to try on like a motorcycle jacket. They could call dad or, being educated, get a square job if the discomfort of poverty became too great. Black Wave confronts the fact that it’s much different for a woman, especially a queer woman — hell, for pretty much anyone but a straight white cis man.
Tea addresses this issue as well as how woefully undervalued art has become in this culture (another reason for artists’ “glamorous” poverty) and she makes it funny. The second half of the book begins with fictionalized Michelle in LA, trying to write a screenplay based on her life.
I just can’t open my screenplay with a scene of myself smoking crack in Ziggy’s van…What made those crack stories work? What made them, um, universal? Michelle suspected class…Michelle suspected if the characters were black or gay the story wouldn’t work as well.
She winds up making her character a man, and describing the fictionalized version of the woman she’s with as having long hair, which becomes a point of contention between them. It’s hilarious until you remember it’s autobiographical — she is assessing the monetary value of her own life, its value as art, whether anyone will care about her experience. And then if you have an ounce of empathy, you’re outraged.
The structure of the book, which bounces forward and backward in time, writing and rewriting the identities of its characters, allows for a lot of fascinating speculation about what is “universal” and why writers make the decisions they do. However, beyond the effects of its warped reality on time, the science fiction aspects of the novel don’t seem necessary. It may be their relative superfluity that make the post-apocalyptic setting mildly confusing. At a point in the narrative where Tea makes reference to Chekhov’s gun (The full quote, from Anton Chekhov: “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.”) I found myself wondering why this story had to involve an approaching apocalypse. Tea delves lightly into the science of environmental catastrophe in a way that provides just enough detail to be distracting.
As far as distractions go, though, Tea’s brave experimentation with genre is of little detriment to the novel. particularly if the premise of the end of the world approaching somehow led to the beauty of the book’s conclusion (or the surreal scene in which Michelle fucks Matt Dillon in a bookstore for some reason.) Michelle Tea provides a view into the mechanics of memoir, the struggle to find a balance between honesty and entertainment value, and the problematic nature of “universality” in American literature. Black Wave is a grotesque, hilarious, gorgeous exploration of what it means to write honestly about one’s life, and to be honest with oneself.
Sarah Galvin is a the author of The Three Einsteins and Best Party of our Lives; contributor to The Guardian, Vice Magazine, the Stranger, City Arts, and New Ohio Review; and also a human bottle rocket.