The Short Version: It’s the late 1990s and the world is ending. Literally. But Michelle rambles through her days like any other days, drinking and fucking and doing drugs, all with a gently gnawing sense of needing (wanting? believing?) something else. She uproots from San Francisco and heads to LA, where the apocalypse really kicks in – but so too does her sense of being.
The Review: Sometimes a book strikes unexpectedly, stopping you in your tracks – or, in my case with Black Wave, nearly knocking me over as the F train took a turn at speed and I wasn’t holding onto anything. I wasn’t holding onto anything because I was holding the book in one hand and I’d raised my other hand to my mouth, in a kind of shock and horror – a motion I haven’t repeated since (as my subconscious chose to remind me) Election Night.
I reference our current political climate for two reasons. One, you’re fooling yourself if you don’t think (to put it bluntly and wrapped in a simple cliché) everything is different now, whether the book (or whatever piece of culture) is new or old or completely apolitical. But two, this book speaks politically to a moment that never happened, to a moment that hadn’t yet happened, and to moments that absolutely did happen – and while that political subtext may’ve been a little more subdued in a pre-January-20th reading experience, I found it inescapable in February 2017.
First, there’s the basic political action of writing a queer novel. It feels like that shouldn’t be a rebel yell as we wrap up the second decade of the 21st Century but here we are and it still is: this is the kind of book that would get PTA members pissed if an AP English teacher assigned it on a syllabus. Not only does it subvert norms of both gender and sexuality, it – in arguably more cunning ways – subverts concepts of personhood and narrative. I’m a firm believer in the idea of unreliable narratives (note: not narrators, but narratives) being the most disruptive force in literature and Michelle Tea does something here that managed to shake me up not once but twice. I feel as though I understand literature somewhat differently after reading this book, in the simple sense of “oh, I didn’t know you could do that!”
The first half of this novel – and the two halves are notably different, as different as the two cities they inhabit (SF and LA) – reminds me of nothing so much as the work of Joshua Mohr. It’s San Francisco in all its grimy glory, circa the late 1990s, with tons of drinking and drugs and sex and art. There is something oddly magnetic about the depravity that Michelle and her friends get up to, something evocative of the “pure” artist – the artist who isn’t actually making work so much as they are messing up their lives. You reach a certain age and you realize that this is actually the sign of failed artists, the inability to sort one’s life out while still producing work, but that age is different for everyone and who am I to judge? Still, as Michelle and company start smoking heroin, you can’t help but think “uhhh, bad idea?”
The novel shifts when Michelle decides to flee SF for Los Angeles – a different kind of wasteland, in so many ways. The most telling way, however, is one that was hinted at throughout the first half of the novel: something is wrong in Pleasantville, USA. Very wrong. The late 90s of Tea’s novel are revealed to look more like a dystopic imagined future than the past so many people all currently feeling so nostalgic for – or, perhaps, like somebody in the 50s/60s or even the 70s might’ve imagined the 90s. Climate change and human intervention have wiped out most natural flora and fauna and it’s not long after Michelle arrives in LA that the announcement comes: the world is going to end, within the next calendar year. Suddenly, the book feels more like Ben Winters’s The Last Policeman trilogy – especially emotionally. Winters and Tea both do a fantastic job of striking right to the core of what makes us human and what might survive in the face of an inescapable disaster. The simultaneous fear and openness, the sort of gumption it would take to continue living in the face of certain death… yes, there’s something that’s a little darkly amusing about the idea of the Scientologists pulling a death-cult mass suicide – and who wouldn’t want to take advantage of our last days on Earth to fuck the celebrity who visits the bookstore where you work (for Michelle, it’s Matt Dillon, in a scene that is hilariously raunchy and weird)? But those scenes are less likely to stick with me than Michelle seeing continued vehicular suicides on the freeway or climbing across a ladder to the neighboring apartment building after her ‘neighbor’ shoots himself. These moments of apocalypse are stark and sad. They’re all the more sad, I think, because we’re faced with such bleak news all around us everyday – and there is a sense, a non-zero chance, that our world is headed for an end like this one.
It wouldn’t do to give away the ultimate ending of the novel, because it is so unexpectedly redemptive and (as I alluded earlier) it proves to be a fantastic meta-narrational trick. Tea has spent the whole novel slowly upending our understanding of what this book actually is – is it a memoir? is it fiction? is it autofiction? what do these things even mean? – and as the book winds to its conclusion, she goes a step further. What does it mean for the world to end, when it isn’t our world? Simultaneously, how many worlds end every day in the collapse of relationships, in decisions to get clean/sober or relapse, in shifts in the understanding of supposedly-fundamental truths about ourselves? These are big questions and Tea does something truly extraordinary when she makes the universal into the personal in a way that feels both personal to her and personal to the reader.
Rating: 5 out of 5. I was so wonderfully surprised at every turn by this novel. Michelle Tea has a captivating voice, the kind that makes even mundane stories of drunken debauchery into pleasing reading – but then she shakes everything up and creates a multi-level alternate universe without ever employing any kind of speculative trickery. Instead, this is a memoirvel that uses literary constructs to explore the nature of (among other things) reality, both on the page and off. And it just so happens that she’s written a deeply depressing apocalypse just in time for our own totally-different-but-just-as-depressing real life one. I don’t know if I would’ve loved this book so much if I’d read it in even December 2016 (although I’m sure I would’ve still thoroughly enjoyed) – but turns out the timing was spot-on, this time.