A Review of Michelle Tea’s Black Wave

October 7, 2016 § 3 Comments

By Hannah Koernertea.jpg

Over the past month I’ve been on a binge of queer nonfiction, devouring Eileen Myles’ Cool for You and Inferno and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, annotating the latter until ink from my pen took up more space per page than printer ink. The attraction isn’t just the quality of the writing—though stunning—or the presence of queer female writers—though still, disappointingly, too rare—but that those works deal in constant, staggering revelations. What I mean is that Eileen Myles’ and Maggie Nelson’s writings live and glory in excavating ambiguities: including, but not limited to, the ambiguity of being queer—what does queerness mean? and what does it mean for my art?

As a queer writer, both questions exist close to my heart. What I come across again and again in my own writing is a frustration with form; surely, one wants to do more than regurgitate heterosexual stories and gender-swap the love interest. At the same time, writing—or at least, writing with an eye towards publication—cannot be entirely free from the pressure for universal appeal. Nor can it be free from the structure of everything that came before it, a structure which is overwhelmingly heterosexual.

Both Myles and Nelson wrote glowing blurbs for Michelle Tea’s new book Black Wave, which meant I pre-ordered it a week in advance of publication. When I got to read it, I found Tea dealing with that same frustration, those same structures and traditions, in an immensely satisfying way: she throws up her hands, and destroys them, ending her memoir in a pre-millennial, all-consuming apocalypse.

Black Wave opens on familiar territory for Tea: 90s San Francisco, drug-swept and drowning under the high-tech takeover of Silicon Valley. It remains a straightforward account of the author’s sex and drug fueled twenties until, during her move to Los Angeles midway through the book, Michelle turns to her then-lover, Quinn, and declares,

“This [. . .] Is My Memoir.

Memoirs are true, Quinn, also a writer, pointed out.

This One Is Part True And Part False. All That Stuff I Just Said, About When We Dated, Is True.”

But, it turns out, it won’t be strictly true for over a decade past the book’s setting: Tea did not in actuality meet Quinn until long after the move to Los Angeles. Black Wave, she reveals, is her attempt at catharsis after an eight year relationship’s messy end—the catch being that her ex-girlfriend requested not to be written about.

In working around its subject, replacing the ex-girlfriend with a series of stand-ins ranging from Quinn to actor Matt Dillon, Black Wave disintegrates in its own hurtle towards conclusion; like the dream collapsing around Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception, Michelle-the-character’s world self-destructs as Michelle-the-author realizes the limitations of her memoir. The once-familiar Californian landscape decays beyond the effects of pollution and poverty, rushing towards the end of the world.

Perhaps equally impossibly, Black Wave remains, at heart, a memoir. It is poetic nonfiction in the style of Myles’ Inferno, riding on the surge and crash of drugs, alcohol, and doomed relationships. In keeping with that tradition it excavates its own ambiguity: a nonfiction account which edges closer to the truth the more absurdist it turns.

Michelle—both the character and the author—finds that the story she wants to tell will not fit into a traditional pattern. That’s not only out of respect for her ex, but because the content itself is profoundly marginalized. “If Michelle had gone to college she was certain she’d have been taught how to write from the perspective of a straight, white, middle-class man,” Tea writes. Hers is not a universal voice. She must do something different for appeal.

Seemingly at odds with the memoir form, queer art has a longstanding relationship with anonymity: for reasons of censorship, of authorial safety, and, as author Szilvia Molnar recently wrote in LitHub, of an embrace of fluidity: “the creator [. . .] can detach themselves from judgment that can be easily associated with a sex/sexuality or characteristics.” Although Black Wave is deeply personal and revealing of its author, it shares in that detachment when the emotional content of one relationship is foisted onto many, and many-gendered, other characters. It is a work that will be cathartic for any writer who struggles with the balancing act of remaining truthful while not impinging too acutely on the privacy of people they love or once loved. Tea manages to describe her breakup in all of its excruciating, frenzied, desperate emotion without mentioning the relationship itself more than a handful of times.

The result is an appropriately queerly-formed quasi-memoir, explosive and purgative, and exactly the break in form I’ve been itching for.


Hannah Koerner studies English at Ohio University, where she works for New Ohio Review and Brevity. She has previously written for MobyLives!

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