Review: Black Wave – Michelle Tea

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Black Wave – Michelle Tea
Release Date: 09/02/2017 (UK)
Publisher: And Other Stories (UK)
Pages: pp. 320 RRP: £10.00 (paperback)
Kindle edition available here (£4.74)

When I first heard about Michelle Tea’s Black Wave, I seriously considered importing a copy from the US – I was therefore overjoyed when And Other Stories announced they were releasing it in the UK. It was well worth the wait.

An apocalypse novel mixed with a beat memoir. Certainly a unique setup, and one that queer novelist and memoirist Michelle Tea turns into a kinetic, hallucinatory journey worth taking.

The novel finds Michelle at a key point in her life – she’s on the verge of becoming a full-blown addict, with each night offering her a unique form of escapism. The San Francisco of 1999 that she occupies is alive with manic parties and dive bars, but something isn’t quite right: the daytime is unbearably hot; the menus at local restaurants are covered in crosses, ruling out the number of species that have gone extinct; and there’s barely any animal or plant life left in the city. Michelle has chosen to try to get clean by moving to a different city (known to some in AA circles as ‘doing a geographical’) – the only problem being, that it seems she’s chosen to do it during the apocalypse.

Black Wave‘s narrative takes an interesting turn once the stage has been set: an older Michelle begins to intrude, retrospectively editing her past into something with a greater universal resonance to  a potential audience – to the point of deleting entire pages of her former self’s life, and even contemplating changing her character entirely. The narrator Michelle speaks in declarative upper case text, with a cutting, manic edge to her voice, suggesting a frustrated attempt to find a greater meaning in her earlier exploits. Tea plays with this dynamic masterfully as the novel progresses – pairing it with her witty, sharp dialogue, and raw approach to describing her characters’ actions. Everything she describes feels like it has a weight to it – from the depictions of sex, to the air inside a filthy apartment.

The young Michelle serves as an excellent way for Tea to examine the internal logic of an alcoholic – at one point, Michelle doesn’t see herself as having a problem if she disguises it by drinking champagne, or dressing up to drink. Her eventual efforts to move toward sobriety see her holed up in a bookshop. Whilst addiction can be seen as a closing off of potential/possibilities, and apocalypse settings tend to follow a singular path, Tea uses the combination of both as an opportunity that one might not expect – to take an honest, raw look at the world, and to find something more.

Simply put, I was glad I waited for And Other Stories to release Black Wave in the UK. It justified the hype, and I can’t recommend it enough. I mean, where else are you going to see a cameo from Matt Dillon in an apocalyptic memoir?

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