In the last few months, I joined two book clubs, because I love to read, but also because I am a chronic over-scheduler. I didn’t finish either of the first books on time (what are book clubs for, if not to make you feel a little bad about yourself?), but then last month’s selection was Black Wave, Michelle Tea’s 2016, um, apocalypse memoir? Kittens, get to this book! It is heartbreaking, hilarious, weird, and queer as fuck. I have somehow never read any of Michelle’s books, but I did follow her excellent “Getting Pregnant with Michelle Tea” column on the now defunct white lady nonsense blog that was XOJane. Black Wave is sobriety memoir as postmodern fiction; a literalization of the idea that sometimes the end of a relationship feels like the end of the fucking world. It exists in an alternate 1990s timeline where the animals are extinct and the plants are dead and everyone just kind of accepts it, in a banality of evil sort of way that is so very 2018.
The book’s Michelle is a twenty-something disaster, drinking and using and fucking her way through San Francisco’s rapidly gentrifying queer community, until she burns enough bridges that she decides to move to Los Angeles (and ultimately get clean), right on the verge of the actual end of the world. She gives us a glimpse of a chemically-induced but tender relationship with a soft butch named Quinn, then pulls the rug out from under us by revealing that the real defining relationship of this time period has been removed from the story, per her ex’s request. The surgical removal of her former partner is as much a character as the folks who show up in and out of Michelle’s life, be they family, dream specters, or 90s heartthrob Matt Dillon. (I told you, shit gets weird.) And it begs the questions: Who owns our stories? How reliable is memory? What would our lives, our timelines, look like without the core people and experiences that seem so inextricably linked to the people we have become? What if we could literally write them out of our story? What if we felt like we had to?
As a queer, sober Angeleno, I over-identified with Michelle’s character like whoa. Some level of narcissism is unavoidable in memoir, and I think it’s the same for readers. We’re wired to love the versions of ourselves we see in media, even if they’re reflections of our worst incarnations. Michelle’s inner addict monologue is so spot on that I felt like I was crawling into my past self: “She would feel better and she would be embarrassed at how dramatic she had felt earlier, with the stop drinking stop drinking stop drinking. Why was she so extreme all the time, Jesus. So hysterical. A little hangover and it’s, Oh, don’t ever drink again.” But Michelle does decide not to drink again. As the chaos of the impending apocalypse because ever more present – riots in the streets, Scientology suicides, the used bookstore as makeshift bunker – Michelle’s internal chaos softens.. It’s hard for an addict to predict how extreme their rock bottom needs to be. Maybe for some folks, it’s nothing short of the end of the world.
The other idea that is still swirling around in my brain after reading this, is how does community, especially queer community, sustain itself in a world that is crumbling around us? Early in our introduction to Michelle and her SF community, she gushes about the love that queers have for queer teens: “Queer teens triggered so much in a grown homosexual. All the trauma of their gay youths bubbled up inside them and the earnest do-gooder gene possessed by every gay went into overdrive. They wanted to save the queer teens…” But this savior instinct often bumps up against the reality of queer adulthood, where so many folks are marginalized, broke, underemployed, or dealing with individual and collective trauma. Michelle’s drinking and drug use are portrayed as one (albeit flawed) antidote to this constant struggle for survival. With so many queers trying to simply survive – both in Michelle’s facsimile of the real world and our current one – how do we love each other fiercely enough to also thrive, even as the black wave approaches?
I would love to hear your thoughts on these questions. Have you read Black Wave, or any of Michelle Tea’s other books? Do you plan to? Are there other essential queer books that you think folks shouldn’t miss? Tell us in the comments!