Sex, Drugs, and the End of the World: An Unflinching Examination of Self

In this wanton riot of individuality, we hear the story of a struggling author who works in a book shop by day and experiments with hard drugs for artistic inspiration by night.

Michelle Tea writes in a fast, edgy style that reflects the nature of her character; it is chatty, modern, and slightly eccentric. The protagonist, also named Michelle, lives a life with no stop lights. She works. She parties. She writes. She works. She parties. She writes.

The cycle continues until Michelle gets a particularly strong dose of recreational drugs and burns out, alienating those that love her most and attracting the attention of friends that are clearly no good for her.

The writing is undeniably honest, holding very little back. There is a strong sense of freedom of expression, freedom on the page and in Michelle’s own life. In the vein of Jeanette Winterson, the style is post-modern and self-reflexive in nature. The book clearly alludes to the author, though how much so is never clearly established or definitively defined

It is human nature, the familiar asserts itself 

Redemptive themes are also within the narrative. Tea is trying to find herself within the concrete jungle of today. She explores her own sexuality and engages in spur-of-the-moment fantasies, again, at the expense of long standing relationships. She does not let anything restrict her or hold her back, but instead wishes to experience, to touch, taste and to feel what life has to offer all to the supposed betterment of her fiction.

She wears no labels and is simply herself in a world that wishes for conformity. Identity labels do not bother her. After originally appearing to be a lesbian, she engages in another random sexual encounter and reveals her pansexual nature. Although this is set in the 90s, this book is a product of a modern queer feminist imagination. Such a character blends well to the modern times, a world that is becoming more accepting of gender identities and finally beginning to understand them.

Michelle is well aware of the effects of her drug use and she wishes to quit and start a new life in Los Angeles before her lifestyle destroys her. Towards the end of the first half, she gets her wish and seemingly escapes the life she has been living.

But when she arrives she finds a similar job and adapts a similar routine, albeit one that is a little slower. Why would she do this? It is human nature, the familiar asserts itself and her dreams for a new 'self' are questionable.

Tea addresses these contradictions within her writing and recognises the limitations of her own experience. She’s only human after all. The idea of 'settling down' is misleading, moving location and starting again will not necessarily solve all of our problems: one needs to look deeper for solutions. If they really do want them.

 filled with apocalyptic imagery

The second half of the novel pulls into question the truthfulness of the first. The writing feels experimental and it’s hard to ascertain what is real and what is fantasy. Michelle admits to editing out a major lover out of the narrative for the purpose of confidentiality; thus, it feels fragmented and blurred. What we read is not the story as it happened, but a censored version to protect the real people involved. I should imagine names have been changed, but in part, I think this accentuates the drug use. So in a way, the book manages to carry this forward regardless of the inconsistencies. Once such a thing becomes such a large part of someone’s life, lines are bound to be blurred and experiences confused.

And the book really reflects this, stylistically and structurally. An end of the world type narrative is eventually revealed to show how unfulfilled sexual fantasies can hang over us. It appears out of nowhere and brings the story to a swift close; though reading back key sections shows how the drug usage was filled with apocalyptic imagery.

Michelle Tea has some rather ironic (yet true) comments to make on authorship and genre writing. She refers to her character as “fringe” rather than “out there” whereas a book about a white male going through the same experience would be considered literary fiction because it would be more 'daring'. The bitterness in the words is palpable and such a truism stands with one of the main motifs of the book: it doesn’t matter what you are: as long as you are yourself.  

This would be a great book for a reader who loves in-depth character studies, books that are introspective and revealing about the nature of self and sexuality in a claustrophobic world. The drug culture setting may be off putting to some, but it is a part of human existence and Michelle Tea relays her personal experiences with it here.

This is an honest book, brave, and unflinching in the face of a world that will likely judge.

Black Wave by Michelle Tea is published by And Other Stories and is available now.

Sean Barrs

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