Originally published in the Los Angeles Review of Books on 10/13/16.
THIS IS THE WAY the world ended for the first time: my brother whispered in my ear that our Christmas presents were hidden in Aunt Mary’s attic, because they were purchased by our parents, not delivered by a magical fat man and a dozen flying ungulates. I staggered through the rest of the day in shock, a six-year-old survivor of the there-is-no-Santa-Claus bomb, unsure of what was real. The Easter Bunny? The Tooth Fairy? God? Everything — and nothing — had changed.
First heartbreak, parental divorce, moving cross country: Growing up is a series of personal apocalypses, a string of events and realizations that shatter our firmaments and forever alter the way we see the world. In Michelle Tea’s new experimental memoir/novel, Black Wave, this apocalyptic side of aging is literalized as a giant tsunami is set to strike shortly after the dawn of the new millennium. It is a megaphor — a metaphor so vast it could easily destabilize an entire story, its force punching through the fragile author-reader relationship like a deus ex machina meteorite. Yet Tea handles it with a finesse that makes the book delightful on both a narrative and a metatextual level. Black Wave is her 11th book, and its lyrical yet lucid prose is both beautiful and easily digestible — the hallmarks of an author used to entertaining live audiences. Openly weaving fact with fiction, this postmodern account asks how a 1990s archetype — the slacker freak, the queer slam poet, the confessional zine-writing third-wave feminist — becomes an adult, and how an adult who believes in honesty, but not objective truth, writes a memoir that doesn’t exploit or expose the people around her. Yet Black Wave is also a dystopian (anti)fantasy novel that explores what people do when they know the end is nigh-as-fuck.
The book opens in San Francisco at a time when everything seems to be closing, or dying. The first segment clings somewhat closely to Tea’s real life, although there are clear indicators that this is not quite our reality, particularly in her description of the natural world. In describing the Mission, her rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, Tea writes:
It was 1999 and the earth’s decline was accelerating. Most native plants and trees were gone, leaving hardier invasive species. […] Now even nice neighborhoods barely had a garden.
These subtle signs of decay are easy to miss as you’re following Tea through one drug-fueled exploit after another — perhaps an homage to the way these benders allowed her to ignore her problems in real life. The first part of Black Wave is like the prodrome of a migraine, full of half-ignored signals that something is wrong, a collapse is coming, the center cannot hold. This is true both for readers, as we come to understand that the world of the book is infinitely more screwed up than our own, and for Michelle-the-narrator, who underneath it all is plagued by skittery, anxious thoughts that she cannot continue as she is: doing heroin with teenagers in a rotting house, working a minimum-wage job, with no plans, no goals, and a severe drinking problem.
Questions of adulthood — what it means, when we enter it, what adults do and don’t do — permeate the book, as when Tea writes:
It is so hard for a queer person to become an adult. Deprived of the markers of life’s passage, they lolled about in a neverland dreamworld. They didn’t get married. They didn’t have children. They didn’t buy homes or have job-jobs. The best that could be aimed for was an academic placement and a lover who eventually tired of pansexual sport-fucking and settled down with you to raise a rescue animal in a rent-controlled apartment.
Obviously, this is hyperbolic and true only for a very specific valence of “queer,” a segment of the population that grows smaller as those “markers of life’s passage” become more open to gay people — not because we’re all about to toss away the alternative lives we’ve constructed, but because for the next generation of queers, the rights we’ve fought for (marriage, childrearing, etc.) will eventually be understood as obligatory (as they are for young straight people now). In this sense, Black Wave is a eulogy not just for Tea’s life in the 1990s, but also for her entire community in those years.
Her jaundiced view of this community is in contrast to her earlier work, which celebrated her nonconformist compatriots and their antiestablishment stances. In Black Wave, her relationship to her fellow riot queers is deeply conflicted, as in this description of one of the women she’s (sort of) dating at the start of the book:
Penny was indeed amazing, but Michelle worried there was a time limit on that sort of amazing. That it was the sort of amazing that could begin to look sad with age. Michelle fought against this analysis, which seemed cruel and typical. The messed-up queers Michelle ran with tempted fate daily, were creating a new way to live, new templates for everything — life, death, beauty, aging, art. Penny would never be pathetic, she would always be daring and deep, her addiction a middle finger held up to proper society. Right? Right?
Although this depiction is one-sided, Tea evocatively captures the malaise of her particular 1990s queer subculture. Indeed, for those who lived through that period, Black Wave is laced with tiny, perfect details: books “self-published” using pilfered Kinko’s cards, boxy men’s leather jackets paired with dog collar necklaces, teen slam poetry contests, and a long recounting of the books on Tea’s shelves, which include Macho Sluts, Bastard out of Carolina, Infinite Jest, The Basketball Diaries, T.A.Z., Angry Women, and The New Fuck You — a veritable syllabus on a certain kind of radical, queer, mostly white subculture as it existed at the end of the last millennium.
The first segment of the book is also laced with clues to Tea’s larger project, which primarily unfolds in the second half: an exploration of what it means to write a memoir that doesn’t hurt the ones you love. After a terrible breakup, where her lover drives off screaming, “Don’t you ever fucking write about me,” Tea wonders if she could “write about herself without mentioning any other people.” This is the challenge she sets for herself in Black Wave: to write a book that follows the path she has taken in life, but without any of the other real players. Significant events, quotes, and realizations remain, but they are like a deck of cards: reshuffled and dealt anew. Her straight younger sister becomes her gay younger brother; the ex who demanded not to be written about is removed almost entirely from the book (and that line given to someone else); etc. Slowly, the reader begins to realize there are two “Michelle Teas” at play in Black Wave: Michelle-the-narrator, whose life we are following, and Tea-the-author, whose life is the basis for the fun house–mirror version we are reading, and who occasionally intrudes upon the book to point out what is untrue, or half-true, or emotionally true but literally made up.
The heart of every postmodern memoir is an attempt to acknowledge the basic impossibility of the truth that all personal nonfiction is an assemblage at best — remembrances and opinions passed off as fact. Writing this kind of memoir requires the author to undermine her status as God within the petite universe of her pages, to pull back the curtain and reveal her fallibility. Yet at the same time, she must keep the reader’s trust — indeed, with any luck, displaying her fallibility will make us trust her more, as it renders her human and relatable.
It’s a trippy tightrope to walk, and Tea does it well. By writing in third person, she primes her audience to understand from the very beginning that her narrator is both she and not she. Throughout the book, she calls out her own inherent biases and flaws of perception, saying she is a “fickle, self-righteous martyr,” and allowing the reader to judge how true that is, or how that might have influenced her life in ways that she herself might not see or admit. By openly discussing her writing process (which stories to tell, how to tell them, and why) Michelle-the-narrator tacitly acknowledges the invisible hand of Tea-the-author shaping the material, and hints at the possibility that she’s left out aspects of her life that — if included — would change the tenor and meaning of what we’re reading. At one point, she goes so far as to tell the truth of the book to the reader, saying, “I Won’t Write About My Life Because No One Wants To Be In My Story. I Won’t Write About My Family Because They’re Fucking Over It.”
There is only one moment, at the volta of the story, when Tea’s guiding hand slips, and the plot seemed to go from multilayered to messy. Halfway through the book, unable to function in San Francisco, Tea convinces a fling named Quinn to help her move to Los Angeles, where she begins to write a novel/screenplay that fictionalizes her life in an attempt to create a best-selling, “universal” story. When Quinn protests her fictionalized representation, Tea argues with her about the rights and responsibilities of a nonfiction writer, then breaks the fourth wall and admits that “[i]n reality, Quinn and Michelle weren’t scheduled to meet one another for over a decade.” Quinn, in this scene, is a stand-in for the lover who asks not to be written about, and we learn that their breakup (and the attendant sobriety that Tea achieved) is the incident that prompted the book in the first place. Black Wave is, in fact, a remnant of an earlier memoir, which Tea cored like an apple to remove all traces of her ex.
This is the moment in which the book tips its hand, fully revealing its falsity, and for a reader, it is simply hard to follow — it left me doubting both Michelle-the-character and Tea-the-narrator. Quinn is plucked from another reality (one where the world isn’t about to end), and deposited in this story like a glitch, a signpost for a path we are not going down. A few pages further on, when Tea admits “Michelle couldn’t remember which version of the story she was in,” it seems like a further indictment of herself as an author, shaking this reader’s faith in her ability to deliver a way out of this tangled metaweb.
In truth, it is impossible to write the kind of book Tea dreamed of: fact for her — fiction for everyone else. She even says so herself: “You really can’t tell half the story. People wrap around each other like trees planted so close that they fuse together.” The more she tries to play Atropos, to snip specific threads from her tale, the more it falls apart, leading us to this moment of narrative collapse.
Thankfully, as is so often the case in real life, the revelation of her deception frees Tea from any kind of pretense, and she is once again able to wrest control of the story. Soon after she moves to Los Angeles, her younger brother calls her in a panic, waking her up from an alcoholic stupor. “People are jumping from the buildings in New York City,” he tells her. “The world is ending.” The scene evokes 9/11, but the scale is larger: Earth is exhausted, Tea learns, and in less than a year, the entire planet will be underwater.
In its final act, Black Wave becomes a philosophical meditation on the end times, complete with suicides, protests, magical dreams, and Matt Dillon. Since it is only a metaphorical Armageddon, Tea is able to season the endgame with moments of sublime sweetness, like the first time you taste something delicious — really taste it — after a terrible breakup. Those signs of life among the ruins are symbolic recognition of the fact that despite what happens in Black Wave, in real life, hitting rock bottom as an alcoholic and breaking up with her ex-who-shall-not-be-named didn’t destroy Michelle Tea, much less the world. The changes that felt so terrifying at the time made her smarter and better.
As she writes in Black Wave’s final pages:
She thought of being a teenager and the toxic stink of hair bleach, the burn of it on her head, lining her face with eyeliner, the panic of getting it wrong and having to start over, the deep satisfaction of teasing her hair, combing it backward so that it sat hugely on her head, walking out into the world like that — and so what if the world hadn’t responded very positively, Michelle knew she looked awesome and she was grateful for that, there on that day in the bookstore, she was grateful that she always trusted in herself above everyone else, in spite of everything else, she always moved into her destiny with excitement and bravery — yes, she realized, lighting a Nat Sherman off a Nat Sherman. It had been brave of her to be who she was in her life and it had been exciting, even the worst of it. Even the foolishness, the things that hadn’t happened and more so the things that she’d allowed to happen, all of it.
In this way, Black Wave is both an apologia and a paean to Tea’s former self: yes, she was flawed and scared; and yes, she was strong and beautiful. Just as it is impossible to separate your story from the stories of those around you, you cannot take the good of your life without the bad.
So, in this meta-speculative-dystopian-bildungsroman, how does a 1990s archetype grow up? By stumbling forward, even when she is unsure where she is going and who she will be when she gets there; by honestly facing off with the shittiest parts of herself, and simultaneously recognizing that no matter how much she might hate or regret her flaws and mistakes, she wouldn’t be who she is without them. Because adulthood isn’t a phase we suddenly enter; rather, it’s an accretion of experiences that turns each of us into a living manifestation of Theseus’ paradox: a ship, sailing forward, changed by the journey yet still answering to the same name — always our self and every self we have ever been before.