When Black Wave opens, everything is changing. Writer Michelle Tea’s anti-hero, also named Michelle, is in the midst of a neighborhood’s skin-peeling to reveal a whole something new.
The stale-beer stink dive bar that catered to middle-class lesbians has gone straight and now aims for a martini crowd. The place where Michelle first angrily read her angry poetry in an angry-poet voice was sold by a felled crack addict to Europeans and renamed Amnesia. This is San Fran, so of course Dot-commers be dot-comming. And that weather thing that happens in dystopia is really, rapidly happening. In the next 11 years, a 9-to-5 workday will likely be flipped to avoid the scariest of sun-singeing hours.
Meanwhile, Michelle’s love life-drunk sitch is oof.
She’s got an open-ish relationship with a responsible and highly forgiving woman, but she also has a taste for numbing agents and the bad decisions that follow. When the woman finally has enough, she tells Michelle that she’s not allowed to write about her — words that haunt Michelle through the finale. She also has an attraction to a not-super legal poet she meets at a high school poetry slam and a curious exploration with an almost-not married heterosexual new friend with a crucial set of wheels.
One of Michelle’s best decisions in a book filled with decisions: She won’t mess with the dude with the teardrop tattoo who has scored crack for her and her posse. Though, curiously, two of her friends will.
Eventually Michelle plays out San Francisco. Something has to-has to change. So she makes a sudden decision to move to Los Angeles — where the whole vibe of the novel shifts to hypercolor. The dystopia becomes more urgent. The fling in the stacks of a used bookstore with Matt Dillon is more feral. The truths of her sobriety and love life are more askew.
There is this fever dream subplot about people dreaming about other people, then finding a way to connect with those people IRL. All over the world, these non-waking relationships are trending.
Tea, an author known for the art-life relationship in her work, tilts, muddies, erases and rewrites to maintain a bit of a vail. I mean, is there even an apocalypse happening during this transition from 1999 to 2000 — it’s subtle in the first half, more anxiety inducing in the second — or is it a metaphor that Michelle the character has climbed into her dead neighbor’s house to relieve him of the firearm he’s used to kill himself. Are people really driving off bridges and into walls. Or is this just what it feels like to work through the early stages of sobriety.
Tea writes such great sentences and has such a charmingly flawed main character — a definition that would require recalibration if you had to, like, share a hangover and a blanket with her. There is so much grit and ruin and honesty. I’m going to read it again.