Black Wave by Michelle Tea — Thom Cuell

It’s 1999 and the world is coming to an end. People are throwing themselves off buildings in New York, drivers are smashing their cars into underpasses and celebrities are committing mass suicide in Scientology centres. The news is vague yet definite: ‘It’s such a mess. Scientists can’t reverse anything. The problems, the oceans, we’ve passed some point where it’s going to accelerate and become like some sort of horrible like sci-fi movie where we all start eating each other and bands of crazed rapists roam around murdering each other‘. As the world crumbles around her, the memoirist and queer poet Michelle Daluski is moving from San Francisco to LA, trying to give up crack and to find a literary form which will help her to understand her chaotic relationships without alienating everyone she comes into contact with.

Black Wave inhabits a moment of generational and cultural shift, capturing the disorientating, almost cataclysmic sense of loss which comes over individuals who feel the world moving on without them. The first half of Michelle’s narrative, based in San Francisco, is a messily affectionate portrayal of the city’s riot grrl scene, still holding out against the influx of Silicon Valley money; the second half, located in LA, removes Michelle from this familiar environment and thrusts her into the heart of the culture industry, where she is forced to interact with a culture beyond her own tribe.

In Future Sex (reviewed for Minor Literature[s] by Eli Lee), Emily Witt chronicles the sexual life of San Franciscan tech-workers, from the 15 minute meditative fingering sessions organised by the OneTaste organisation to the polyamorous partners who arrange their liaisons through Google docs, and hire a strippers’ pole for a sex-party whilst making sure to organise liability insurance. Throughout these accounts, there is a sense of individuals combining their sexuality with a desire for personal development (a hand job at the OneTaste centre was a means for women to ‘access their inner teacher’). Everyone is healthy and wealthy; dating site algorithms help individuals to find their perfect partners without the awkward messiness of IRL encounters.

Michelle’s San Francisco could not be further from this idea. Her sex life is chaotic and disordered, fuelled by alcohol and drugs; the members of her clique play the part of ‘hardened females, embodying a sort of Hunter S Thompson persona, a deeply feminist stance for a couple of girls to take… claiming drug and alcohol abuse as a feminist literary statement’. For a brief window of time, between the Reaganite Eighties and the new millennium of Steve Jobs and Google, it is possible for this attitude to sustain a viable subculture, for Michelle to live as ‘a poet, a writer, the author of a small book published by a small press that revealed family secrets, exposed her love life, and glamorised her recreational drug intake‘.

From the opening paragraph, however, we get a sense of cultural shift. Michelle’s world is being impinged upon by outsiders: The Albion, ‘the purple-lit bar where middle-aged, working class bulldaggers nursed beers at the counter was, overnight, converted into a heterosexual martini bar where men who smoked actual cigars drank chocolate martinis and harassed the women who passed by‘. Of course, this is an ongoing historical process: the Mission, where she lives, was ‘once Irish, then Mexican, later invaded by a tribe not bound by ethnicity but by other things – desire, art, sex, poverty, politics’. It is this unnamed tribe which now finds itself under threat, as ‘restaurants she could not afford to eat in were luring people from other enclaves, people once too frightened to visit the Mission, where people sold drugs and shot at one another with guns’.

This dialectical shift is also occurring within the queer subculture Michelle inhabits. Whereas her parents’ generation had fought for civil rights, her own is less outward-looking: ‘she didn’t want to sue the government for the right to marry, she wasn’t interested in gays in the military, she was queerly promiscuous and thought that this was enough, that this was activism‘.

With the freedom to escape the heteronormative suburban enclaves their parents had inhabited, Michelle’s generation attempted to form a distinctively queer method of living, their praxis based on individual expression of autonomy rather than civic engagement.

Every subculture has a shelf-life, however, and Michelle’s generation finds itself coming up against a new generation represented by contestants at a Youth Poetry Slam Championship Michelle is invited to judge: ‘so wholesome and focussed and directed… if they managed to grow up they would go to writing programs and summer at writers’ colonies and have their fiction published in high-brow magazines’. The difference is exemplified by Michelle’s brother, who ‘hated San Francisco. He thought the gays there had no ambition, they only wanted to fall into an infantile orgy of suckling and self-obsession’. Where Michelle abandoned the cultural mainstream, her brother and his peers are ready to engage, and take over.

Michelle Tea expertly satirises the shibboleths of subcultural life. Recreating the intensity with which artists committed themselves to remaining underground, she observes that ‘to feel the heat in these conversations one would imagine mainstream success was beating down their doors… that Julia Roberts was itching to play the part of a fucked-up alcoholic baby dyke in her next film‘. She also shows glimpses of the structures which support the apparently nihilistic culture which Michelle embodies: we see her bookshelves, weighed down with writers like Maggie Nelson and Eileen Myles; Michelle’s room, virtually a queer secret history in itself, has hosted lesbian bands, artists, hookers and porn shoots—virtually the whole radical, experimental queer San Francisco scene had passed through, creating a lineage that ends with Michelle’s drugged up decadence.

She also parses the complexity of framing one’s life within a literary narrative. As with Kathy Acker and Chris Kraus, Tea encourages the reader to identify author with protagonist, by having them share a name, and certain biographical details (whilst also creating distance by employing a third person narrative and, later, by interposing metatextual questions about the authenticity of the narrative as it is being written).

Michelle is 27, and contemplating her second volume of memoir (looking for comparisons, Jordan ‘wrote’ her second autobiography at 28, whereas Churchill completed his at 79). She is finding the process unusually problematic, however; while her first book might be classified as ‘warts and all’, she is now wary of alienating her social circle: ‘Michelle’s bravado – don’t act that way if you don’t like to see it in print – was wearing thin. It seemed to require a certain ugliness to maintain it. She’d grown weary of herself… could she write about herself without mentioning any other people?

More troubling still is the practicality of framing her own existence within an acceptable commercial framework. In a stunning passage, Michelle ponders how to recount her experiences with crack, which she identifies as a narrative device only acceptable for middle class characters:

‘The reader was having a hard enough time trying to relate to a black person or a gay person without then having to relate to a crackhead. It was too much… for the crack narrative to succeed, the character has to be starting out on top, with a place to fall from. For Michelle’s story to be universal, it can only go in one direction, and crack does not further that trajectory’

The passage accepts that what we view as a ‘universal’ experience still defaults to the white and male. For Michelle, mainstream acceptance means invisibility. Her generation, ‘saddled with low-grade PTSD from being queer,’ cannot assimilate with the confidence of the young poets she meets at the Slam contest, and so the chipping away of their enclave in the Mission poses a real existential threat. Tea uses pathetic fallacy to reinforce the point: as Michelle leaves San Francisco, she ‘felt alarmed at all the dead land. These towns were abandoned. A gas station had been torched, blackening everything around it in a wide, ruined circle‘. She is driven through ‘Cowswitz’, a slaughtering ground for cattle, and the stench of death and corruption fills the air.

Having explored the problematic nature of ‘universality’, Tea then goes on to subvert the idea for the remainder of the novel. Arriving in Los Angeles, Michelle is isolated, unemployed, off the heroin and crack but drinking heavily (Tea describes in grotesque detail the process of filtering the scum of dead fruit flies from her wine through a strainer). Soon, she learns that the apocalypse is imminent, and the suicides begin. The images of planes flying into buildings and people throwing themselves from the upper floors of skyscrapers, combined with Black Wave’s post-millennial setting, inevitably invoke the memory of 9/11; however, the ‘universal’ nature of this memory is reframed by Tea, through the eyes of a depressed queer woman mourning for the loss of her community. The apocalyptic atmosphere we remember becomes pathetic fallacy.


To reinforce the point, Tea repeats it in different ways: the actor Matt Dillon appears as a sort of Manic Pixie Dream Boy, subverting the notion of the male gaze (although this cameo, while entertaining, echoes Chris Kraus’s use of Dick Hebdidge a little too much); a vigil for the planet becomes mixed up with a vigil for dead celebrities outside the Scientology centre, in a caustic comment on the conflation of celebrities with causes.

Ultimately, as things fall apart, the many subtle distinctions of culture and sexuality appear less important, and Michelle can be reconciled with her parents and brother. Around the world, people retreat into a world of hyper-real, polymorphously perverse dreams, analogous to Michelle’s earlier self-medication. The breaking down of social structures enables Michelle to assert herself more strongly, brandishing a gun at a homophobic customer in the bookstore she works at, and eventually takes over.

Black Wave is a ferociously enjoyable novel, equally at home packing a crack pipe as unpacking an academic discussion; the opening section combines the boisterous self-destructiveness of Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park with the queer historiography of Neil Bartlett’s Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall, while the second employs a similar narrative tricksiness to Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, but retaining a distinctive voice of its own. Michelle Tea has captured the experience of a vibrant yet transient culture, as it is in the process of being torn apart by societal forces. As public discourse becomes increasingly polarised between baby boomers and millennials, the experience of this in-between generation makes crucial reading.

Michelle Tea is the author of numerous books, including Rent Girl, Valencia, and How to Grow Up. She is the creator of the Sister Spit all-girl open mic and 1997-1999 national tour. In 2003, Michelle founded RADAR Productions, a literary non-profit that oversees queer-centric projects.

Choose dandyism. Choose punk. Choose excessive Quentin Crisp quotes and shoe-horned references to wrestling. Choose dubious sexual jokes. Choose
leopardprint and eyeshadow. Choose Thom Cuell.

Colour artwork for book images: Gaia June, photos courtesy of Thom Cuell.

Black Wave is published by And Other Stories.