Care of the Soul: On Michelle Tea's 'Black Wave'

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In Michelle Tea's 'Black Wave,' the Pacific Ocean is a fuming, toxic stew.  (Photo: From 'HAZMAT Surfing,' byMichael Dyrland/Mike Marshall)

When I was a fresh-faced MFA student at a San Francisco private college, we were regularly encouraged by our renegade teachers to break form, and approach our writing with openness to experimentation. I tried -- and failed -- to do so in my short stories, over and over. You'd think it would be easy to break the rules. It's not.

So I admire Michelle Tea's successful attempt to bring transparency to the "strange obligations of storytelling" in her latest book, the hybrid fiction-memoir Black Wave (The Feminist Press; 2016). Last year, I interviewed Tea on the release of her 2015 memoir How to Grow Up, and at the time, she mentioned Black Wave, explaining that she'd been working on a new memoir but had gotten waylaid midway through the process. Her ex had asked that Tea not write about their relationship, but the book's entire narrative timeline hinged upon it. Tellingly, especially in light of the destabilized, failing world captured in Black Wave, Tea also said of San Francisco: “The landscape I inhabited [in the 1990's] is just gone."


Rather than abandoning the manuscript, Tea dug in, throwing out normative narrative expectations with the dirty bathwater. Call it the ultimate queer narrative. It works.

Black Wave opens on Valencia Street at the Albion, a dive bar in the Mission District. If you've read Tea's previous books -- The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America, Valencia, The Chelsea Whistle, Rent Girl -- then you're familiar with her tales of wild, creative, sex-fueled, drug and alcohol-drenched lifestyles in San Francisco's queer artistic haven of the nineties. And yes, the first half of Black Wave dwells in this same landscape, but with a twist. It's 1999, the first tech bubble has raised rents beyond reason, yuppies are taking over the Mission, and the world is, literally, about to end. The native plants have died; the only vegetation thriving are invasive weeds like kudzo. The trees have crumbled to dust. The ocean is blanketed in a thick, poisonous fog from toxins and underwater nuclear tests. Still, everyone goes about their business, only with more sun protection, like frogs in proverbial water slowly coming to a boil. "The ocean was a giant toilet lapping at San Francisco's edges," Tea writes, "but mainly things were functioning."


Michelle and her friends continue with their lives: partying, writing poetry, snorting cocaine cut with baby laxatives, and eventually scoring heroin. It's not until Michelle heads south to Los Angeles with her married, androgynous lover Quinn that the reality of the world's desolation really starts to set in.

"California was on fire and once out of San Francisco the highway shimmered in the windshield like a mirage. The land on the margins was dry, even charred. The farmland decreased as they drove. The water was too ruined for effective farming and the animals were out of whack, the bugs and the birds, the pests and the pollinators. They drove past wide plowed fields whose sickly crops had been abandoned. What Do You Think That Was? Michelle asked, starting at the mangled stalks, everything hay colored underneath the brutal sun. Quinn shrugged and kept her eyes on the road."

Once Michelle arrives in Los Angeles, the thus-far straightforward narrative begins to unravel. It's in this second part of the novel, simply titled "Los Angeles," that the cracks in the storytelling begin to appear. Quinn confesses that Michelle didn't actually drive to Los Angeles with her. That in real life, Michelle had moved south with Lucretia, her gender-queer partner of eight years. But the real Lu had asked not to be included in the story, making things difficult, making that turn of events impossible.

"Michelle felt sad about all the sweet moments she would not be able to write about. The sweet parts were important, without them Michelle just look insane."

At the same time, the sudden lacuna breaks open Black Wave’s storytelling. Tea rises to the occasion by capturing the strange confusion of writing, the ultimate weirdness of what it means to write a life. Michelle spends pages trying to work out her novel. Should she try to make it more accessible, perhaps more straight, more white, more male, to have a wider appeal? What makes for a compelling narrator? How queer can a writer be and still possibly cross over to a larger, mainstream audience?

"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. She would have to teach herself how to be universal. She could do it, it would just take time."

As she struggles to write the story (or screenplay, since she's in Los Angeles), the fictional Michelle has now taken a job at an archaic used book and record store. Matt Dillon is a customer, which leads to an interesting plot twist later. Her drinking also ventures into dangerous territory, morphing from artsy wild party girl to something more akin to Nicolas Cage's descent in Leaving Las Vegas.

Los Angeles is particularly suited for apocalyptic fantasies. The used bookstore where fictional Michelle takes a job sits directly across the street from the Scientology Celebrity Centre. One of Black Wave’ funniest moments (if you share my taste for dark humor) comes when a mass suicide occurs at the gaudy, weird complex. Michelle watches as the bodies of John Travolta, Giovanni Ribisi, Jason Lee, Kirstie Alley and Linda Blair are wheeled out on gurneys. The scene ends with people parading through the streets, chanting "U.S.A.!", and transforming apocalyptic tragedy into nationalistic jingoism.

BW_Tea Author Photo. Credit Gretchen Sayers

Later, fictional Michelle has sex with a gun-wielding Matt Dillon, because, why not? The end of the world is coming and fiction allows us to do all kinds of things. And Tea has set us up for these types of outlandish possibilities in earlier pages.

"This was the terrible thing about fiction, Michelle could write about whatever she wanted. She could write about dinosaurs mating with unicorns on the lost city Atlantis and some fool would read it. In the face of so many options she spun, paralyzed, overthunk."


There's much more to Black Wave, and for me, it will merit re-reading throughout the years. It's about survival, sobriety, time-traveling teens, second-chance worlds, love, and everything in between. It's earned a spot in my library next to Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower and Claire Vaye Watkins' Gold Fame Citrus -- both dystopian classics which place Los Angeles squarely at the center of environmental and social apocalypse. The difference in Tea's book, and something that I quite enjoyed, is the sense that "care of the soul" -- which ultimately means the ability to love deeply -- still matters, even if the world outside is crumbling to the ground.

"Michelle opened a blank document. She imagined a girl whose openness to everything was its own current, pushing her into life. She remembered the feelings of love and drugs sickening her body, and felt tender towards the experience even as she was glad it was over. She felt the same about the doomed world itself, an impossible tenderness that did not blunt her relief that it was all going to end soon. She began to type."