Queering SFF

Alt-History Queer Memoir: Black Wave by Michelle Tea

Michelle Tea is a prolific writer in fields ranging from keenly-observed memoir (Valencia, Rent Girl) to young adult fantasy (Mermaid in Chelsea Creek); she’s got toes dipped into several pools. One uniting thread in her stories is queerness, and another is the bittersweet sharpness of her prose. The most recent book—Black Wave—straddles those genres and tones, though: a startling, engaging, and incisive novel, it explores a metafictional alternate past with a protagonist also named Michelle. As the brief flap copy says, “It’s 1999. The world is ending.”

The experience of reading Black Wave is immersive and eerie, a version of our own world that feels abruptly and dangerously close to home in its coast toward oblivion. It’s a fantastic mélange of tropes and techniques: the observation and intuition of queer fiction, the cutting praxis of science fiction or alternate history, the intimacy of memoir, and the experimentation of metafiction. In short, it swept a hand down the keyboard that is my emotional range.

This was a satisfying occurrence, to say the least.

Black Wave occurs in two parts: the first is set in San Francisco, the second in Los Angeles. The first half strikes all the notes for a queer memoir; the second half begins derailing in a fascinating manner, balancing the increasingly present end of the world with the admission of the novel’s metafictional premise and its connections to the “real” Michelle’s life.

However, protagonist-Michelle is a young writer who has published one memoir and is coasting around San Francisco justifying her increasingly unpleasant drug use under the umbrella of an anti-patriarchal praxis. In San Francisco, she works an elaborate game of self-deception and justification around her questionable behavior, her jealousy, her cruelty, and her substance abuse. Her portraits of herself and her friends, the queer female scene of the city, are so honest as to be at once romantic and horrible. It feels a bit like coming home, like a reflection on a time exaggerated by distance and the soft haze of nostalgia. Luckily, Tea saves herself and protagonist-Michelle from being too pleasant or sweeping the worst of it under the rug.

All of the ugliness, the petty bizarre travails of a life in the queer scene for kids who’ve got no chance elsewhere, comes through—as does the handsome closeness of it, the interwoven lives and the supportive communities, the sense of love sought and given in chosen families. Michelle’s lesbian moms and gay brother—of whom she has written a memoir—also feature prominently; she therefore, in the end, comes across as someone desperately self-absorbed at the age when everyone is desperately self-absorbed.

Except it’s 1999, and the world is ending. Michelle, in this world, isn’t ever going to get the chance to grow up. Hence the sudden shift in the second half, in Los Angeles, to Tea breaking into the narrative to explain that she’s trying to fictionalize her own experience and life in Michelle’s story. She’s removed certain characters, switched up the chronology of occurrences, replaced one person with another; in doing so, she is trying to make an argument about getting older, becoming more mature, and the struggle to find a life. Sobriety and the chemical allure of not being sober both feature prominently.

Truly, the fun part of this is that once a reader tries to shelve this as one thing or another—memoir, metafiction, queer lit, SF—it rebounds and careens into another space, smashing them all together. I appreciate the intimacy of it, the directness of it, and the cutting observations that Tea is so clever with. She’s looking at the good and the bad, the honest and the invented, to tell the truth with a whole batch of handsome weird frightening lies. The real emotional power of the novel comes through in the close, as Michelle coasts through the final days of human life on earth—immersed in dreams of her alternate reality self, of love, or togetherness with humans that she is not on the same timeline with in this world to ever be together.

This approach to romantic attachment, and to friendship also, is the thing that the novel builds up to. We might not make it—we might not be all right. Things don’t work out. Humans are specific and particular to their moment, and someone who might have been the perfect match isn’t; this isn’t that world. When it all falls apart, some people will gather in vigils and other will suicide and others still will drift back into all the pleasures and habits that civilization kept them from. It’s poignant and honest and a little too raw for comfort. While I found the first half to be the usual fun/weird/uncomfortable drug memoir, the second half is a spectacular exploration of the human condition using an SF-nal lens.

Black Wave satisfies on several fronts, careful and balanced enough between them to strike at all of the points it chooses. As an artistic exploration of prose, memoir, and the impulse to tell stories: smart and fortunately not so self-absorbed as to be dull. As a piece of apocalyptic climate-change fiction: eerily, painfully real while it tracks the slow then sudden dissolution of human culture. As a queer novel that trips merrily and irreverently through theoretical and personal approaches to gender, sexuality, and politics: self-deprecating and sharp and honest, full of moments of blistering observation. For readers of SF, it’s a breath of fresh air on a gripping topic; for queer audiences, it approaches a tale that could be too familiar with a terrible and awesome closeness brought on by the admission of no future. In doing both at once, Tea manages to make a stunning emotional argument about the vitality of human culture and the process of making art (or love).

Plus, again: the prose is fucking gorgeous, the characters are hilarious and upsetting and miserable, the world is heart-stopping in its strangeness and bleak crawl to the edge of the cliff, then its tumble over the edge. Black Wave was a solid book, different enough in all directions to merge the things I adore into one weird, almost-hallucinatory but too-real mashup.

Black Wave is available from the Feminist Press at CUNY.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.

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