Book Review: Black Wave by Michelle Tea

Grungy and queer, Michelle is a grrrl hung up on a city in riot. It’s San Francisco and it’s 1999. Determined to quell her addictions to heroin, catastrophic romance, and the city itself, she heads south for LA, just as the news hits: in one year the world is Officially Over. The suicides have begun. And it’s here that Black Wave breaks itself open, splitting into every possible story, questioning who has the right to write about whom. People begin to dream the lovers they will never have, while Michelle takes haven in a bookshop, where she contemplates writing about her past (sort of), dating Matt Dillon (kind of), and riding out the end of the world (maybe). 

New from Michelle Tea, novelist, essayist, and queer counter-culture icon, Black Wave is a punk feminist masterpiece and a raucously funny read for everyone … except, perhaps, for Scientologists.

Black Wave is a story which dances on the blurred lines between fiction and memoir in order to examine the crux of a very pertinent question: who has the right to tell a story, and about whom? The narrative through which this examination takes place is undoubtedly entertaining, following the fortunes of Michelle, a twenty-something gay writer living a fairly drugged-up and alcohol-enabled existence against the backdrop of a late-nineties San Francisco on the verge of environmental collapse. When Michelle makes a clean break and heads to LA, it also coincides with the pronouncement that the end of the world is nigh. From there, things get very weird, very quickly.

To be truthful with you, reader, I’m still grappling with how I feel about this book. Structurally it almost operates as two shorter novels, with part one set in San Francisco and part two in LA and there is a sense of detachment from the first part as the reader moves to the second. This was perhaps intentional but as a reader I felt bereft of some of the characters I’d got to know in part one, who were barely mentioned again. It is also written as a third person narrative, which again fed into the overall sense of detachment. Given that Tea was clearly wishing to play around with the memoir concept, this would have worked better for me written as a first person narrative. I think this would have made it easier to read, as well as allowing the reader exclusive access to Michelle’s mind which, from a third person perspective, was sometimes pretty unfathomable.

And yet, despite my difficulties with these aspects of how the book was written, I kept reading. There is no doubt that the plot is compelling: the journey of this individual through the end times is not one which can simply be abandoned halfway through. In addition, Tea’s creation of a sense of place and time is outstanding: I could almost see the toxic waste, the rotten trees crawling with infestation; I could feel the dirt and smoke of the polluted air on my skin.

Despite my frustration at trying to understand Michelle at times, I found her to be well-drawn, realistic and complex. Some of her decisions and development sometimes felt a little abrupt; for example, in one brief chapter later on in the book we are suddenly informed that she has now stopped drinking. Given the apocalyptic backdrop sudden changes were mostly forgivable but as aforementioned a different narrative choice might have served to smooth the reader’s path a little.

Finally, there is no doubt that this book has its funny moments, and the celebrity cameos are second to none – well, it is LA and Tea is playing around with the ‘who can write about whom’ question.

If you like stories which mess with your mind a little and leave you with a sense that you don’t quite know how to feel about them, then Black Wave could well be for you. It’s a slightly baffled 3 stars from me.

Leave a Reply