The first half of Black Wave by Michelle Tea is boring—very well-written, but tedious. The main character, Michelle, spends most of it drinking and doing drugs and hooking up with different women in late 90s San Francisco. She’s drifting along, sort of functional, but not doing particularly well. She’s able to get herself to her bookstore job, which she managed to snag in part because she’s published a moderately successful memoir, but she hasn’t managed to write anything else.
I think the tedium is intentional on Tea’s part, although I also think that readers who know the scene in which the book takes place will find much to enjoy in the details Tea includes. It’s good writing, and it’s often very funny. Take, for example, this description of the apartment Michelle shares with friends in a house once renowned as “a magic castle of queerness with a serious outlaw history”:
Clovis the Landlord had promised he would not raise the rent and he had no intention of selling the house. The man spent his lonely nights singing into his personal karaoke machine in the flat downstairs. The sound of him singing Sammy Davis Jr., his warbling voice floating up through the floorboards, broke everyone’s heart. Everyone in the punk house loved their landlord. It was okay that the shower, a metal closet, was rusting through the bottom, surely harboring gangrene and soaking the house in soggy rot—Clovis’s second-floor apartment was in no better shape. If he had the money he’d fix their shower, but to get the money he would have to raise their rent, and so they put a milk crate in the shower to stand above the jagged rust and wore flip-flops while they bathed, just in case.
Even though Michelle is obviously living in terrible circumstances, there’s not a real sense of danger. The whole scene is hazed over, whether with nostalgia or drugs isn’t clear. Yet, as evocative as the writing is, it’s not something I could sustain interest in for 300 pages. It’s a good thing, then, that the novel takes a turn just after 100 pages, when Michelle decides to move to Los Angeles. And what a turn it takes!
When we see Michelle in Los Angeles, we learn that a lot of what we’ve just read isn’t exactly true. The characters aren’t exactly who they seemed, and Michelle has adjusted her narrative to protect others’ privacy. But they still have demands—”If you’re going to write about me at least give me good hair,” says her girlfriend, Quinn. To which Michelle thinks, “I Won’t Write About My Life Because No One Wants To Be In My Story.”
Okay, so we’re going to have a narrative about narrative—how memoir arrives at truth and all that. And this, too, is skillfully done. There’s a hilarious bit where Michelle thinks about how to characterize herself and decides to make herself a man in her book:
Maybe Michelle could actually keep the ideas that obsessed her—injustice, struggle, gender, feminism—but put them onto a man, thereby making them universal! Women have been trying to make feminism universal forever but had anyone ever thought of this? She would be such a hero! Michelle felt all fired up but it was probably just coffee. She felt herself sag as the caffeine peaked in her bloodstream and began its retreat.
But the book isn’t done with turning itself into something different. It’s only after this new thread has been established that the black wave of the title arrives. Some sort of ecological disaster, in the form of a wave that will engulf the West Coast is coming. Not right away, but soon. And there’s no stopping it. So life changes, not entirely for the worse either. There’s chaos and crime and loss of infrastructure that we rely on. It’s mostly terrible. Some people commit suicide to escape. But there are always people who keep going, and some of them, like Michelle, are able to eke out a slightly better life for the time they have left. There’s a whole thing about strangers connecting with each other through dreams and them finding each other in life. Life is strange and almost unrecognizable and certain to end soon, but there is life while it lasts.
I don’t want to make the book’s final chapters seem trite and saccharine. It’s too weird and darkly perverse for that. Maybe I was just won over because Michelle spends her last days in a used bookstore making out with Matt Dillon. (Not my type, but still.) But I also liked the idea that life can keep pressing forward, right up until the end. Maybe it doesn’t feel like much of a life, but it is life. It is persistent.