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14 February 2017

Goddess of the underworld: Michelle Tea’s Black Wave

Sarah Ditum enjoys Michelle Tea’s latest anarchic autofiction, Black Wave.

By Sarah Ditum

Michelle Tea’s memoir Valencia, published in 2000, won the Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Fiction. Reading Black Wave, you can understand the confusion: Tea’s work sits on a raw fault line between the real and the made-up. This new novel is about a San Franciscan lesbian (like Tea) who is an incomer from Chelsea, Massachusetts (like Tea). Called Michelle (like Tea), she is a writer of autobiographical volumes who worries about the ethics of autobiography (like Tea) and works dead-end jobs between getting laid and getting high in the scuzzy Mission District (like Tea).

In her introduction to the reprint of Valencia, Tea called that book “a bug trapped in emotional amber”. Is Black Wave just gummed up in the same moment? No, it isn’t. For one thing, that time and place are due for revisiting. San Francisco in the late 1990s was once a backdrop to Tea’s personal life. Now, it’s a synecdoche for the economic, social and cultural transformation of most of the world. The future hangs over Black Wave like exactly that – a black wave.

Michelle the character knows that her world of dive bars and dyke poetry is being wiped away by the yuppie storm of the dotcom boom, and she knows that the group of incomers she belongs to has pushed out the Mexican families that previously occupied the Mission. “Why did she think her world wasn’t supposed to change?” she asks herself. Michelle’s world is on the way out, and Tea records it with a degree of satirical detail that bespeaks true, attentive affection.

She captures grotty rentals and grungy clothes; there’s a magnificent page-and-a-half encomium on the things that Michelle’s butch friend Ziggy likes to hang from her hips, a rolling litany of metal belts and wallet chains and sometimes “a heavy dildo curled in her underwear”. It’s not a lesbian world as such, though Michelle’s clique consists exclusively of women who have sex with women. Michelle’s mothers back home are lesbians and have a life of monogamy and regular jobs that she views with baffled condescension.

Michelle is queer, a member of a relentlessly subversive subculture that governs its perversion with perversely rigid rules. In the early pages, she is excluded from a make-out session between her butch friends and a male ex-con because she “wasn’t butch enough to mess around with men. It would be simply heterosexual, and slutty.” The more seriously a group takes itself, the more fertile the social comedy, and the first section of Black Wave gets great, abrasive laughs from the meeting between Michelle’s politics and her more practical self-interest. For example:

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Michelle understood that to truly support a prostitute meant wishing her a successful business, which translated into streets teeming with inebriated men propositioning anyone who looked slutty from their car windows. She tried to have a good attitude about it.


Later, an attempt to sublimate jealousy into performative sexuality goes disastrously wrong at a party and culminates in Michelle shouting at her lover: “I Just Felt Like You Like Her So Much Why Don’t You Just Eat Rice From Her Ass Then?” (All of Michelle’s dialogue is rendered like that; everyone else speaks in italics, with a fittingly zine-ish effect.)

Beneath the laughs is something more menacing. Michelle’s substance abuse, which she sells to herself as a feminist landgrab for the Beats’ macho excess, is escalating into dependency. Her behaviour, which has all the charm and thoughtfulness of a typical addict, is alienating her friends. And the world is dying: it’s mentioned in the most offhand way, but 1999 in Black Wave is a time of mass extinctions, poisoned oceans and scorched farmland that Michelle must cross to reach Los Angeles, where she plans to make a fresh start.

Here, Black Wave’s undercurrents erupt at the centre like geysers. There are shades of Nightwood, Djuna Barnes’s autobiographical novel of addiction and lesbian obsession in 1930s Paris. Barnes took her characters down to hell where Tea brings a hypnotic end of days to hers, but they share an unsparing eye for the demi-monde to which they belong. In LA, Michelle tries to turn her San Fran experiences into prose and finds she is unable to “universalise” herself: “She had tried to write herself straight, but she was so low-rent. She tried to write herself male, but then there was her pussy and her PMS . . .” Out of a messy, scabrous delve into the personal, Tea has created something uncomfortably funny and bleakly gorgeous.

This article appears in the 08 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine