For a certain kind of reader Michelle Tea’s Black Wave will be a very easy book to slip into. It takes place in a basement world you know or at least have dreamed of: long, drunken nights in soul kitchens and dive bars, laughter and beauty and familiar faces, the music and the feels. And you know the negatives, too: physical and psychic hangovers, strange mood swings, crying jags, and hours spent dodging sunlight and clinging to the walls. The glorious fractured world of the San Francisco bar scene is scaled up into the end times. Animals and plants die out, and are replaced by ornery adaptive species that thrive in the city’s broken streets. You find you can’t get identity documents, then that you can’t get basic staples. Rumours of environmental catastrophe do the rounds. Even this feels comforting in a strange way. For isn’t there a comfort in the apocalypse – isn’t that why so many people do apocalypse novels? Doesn’t part of you love the idea of all that space and free goods in a collapsed civilisation?
The plot is not that complicated. Protagonist Michelle is a downheels novelist who by day works in a bookshop and by night goes out, cops off with other women, and ingests drugs and alcohol in legendary volumes. The fundamental insecurity that most hedonists come to know takes hold of her, and she decides to flee 1990s Frisco for Los Angeles and a new start. As Olivia Laing writes, Michelle is simply ‘doing a geographical’ – and she arrives in LA with her old habits and old demons intact. She gets a job in another bookshop and goes back to her drinking – alone this time, in health-conscious Los Angeles. The world rolls on towards disaster with suicidal pile-ups on the freeways, and drug addicts stealing books from Michelle’s store. Michelle deals with the apocalypse by getting sober and banging actor Matt Dillon during slow days at work.
Black Tea is a postmodern novel, but it’s a exuberant and honest postmodernism far outside the confined academic version of that philosophy. Between the Mission and LA Tea’s narrative splinters in time. We see Michelle of the 2010s, writing about her druggy breakdown from the safety of sobriety and middle age. ‘For the crack narrative to succeed, the character has to be starting out on top, with a place to fall from,’ Michelle writes. ‘Crack wouldn’t work for Michelle’s character. She’s already sort of a loser’. She considers making the Michelle character male. ‘As a straight, male, middle-class man could she now shoot heroin and go on a literary crack bender?’
It’s an interesting point. Hedonism in literature was a club for men only. A male writer getting hammered and making a jackass of himself looks like Charles Bukowski, or thinks he does. A woman writer getting drunk just looks like a drunk. The hedonistic frontiersmen of American letters – Mailer, HST, Burroughs – seem terribly old fashioned now. In a famous hatchet job on John Updike, David Foster Wallace criticised the ‘Great Male Narcissist’ and his roster of author surrogates: ‘They are also always incorrigibly narcissistic, philandering, self-contemptuous, self-pitying and deeply alone, alone the way only a solipsist can be alone.’
DFW was writing in the late nineties but the drunken writer alpha males still provoke sensitivity, perhaps envy. Stephen King satirised the GMN writers in his novels, so did Scottish author John Niven. As late as 2016 a minor controversy broke out when John Banville confessed that ‘I was not a good father. I don’t think any writer is.’ That provoked a howling article from novelist Julian Gough, who complained that ‘the message that John Banville sent in that interview, and in that quote in particular, will damage young male writers, if they act on it; damage their lives, their kids, and their art.’ He talks at length about his own irresponsible past, and later redemption, and stresses that ‘if you’re a young male writer reading this: you do not have to choose between family and work. You need both. They feed each other.’ Or, er, you could just not have kids. It’s a free country.
We have wandered quite a way from the path, but I think Black Wave does have a lot to offer about representations of women and hedonism (only Lena Dunham and Emma Jane Unsworth’s Animals has really gone there) as well as fantastic, seamless passages on the hedonism itself: the friendships, the accidents and compliments, the long drunken conversations, the flyer scrapbooks, the ash, the smell, the tastes and crazy lusts. A messy scene, but the prose is discplined, with bang-on insights into sex, race, class and the human condition. It’s an emotive, sensual romp, a fractured narrative of a fractured mind. In Black Wave there is always the possibility of other lives, other choices and other histories. The world doesn’t have to be ending.
Towards the end of the book Tea introduces a curious device: people start having plague dreams, but they don’t dream about the plague, they dream of love and happiness. People withdraw from the world altogether, to spend their last days asleep. Dating websites spring up to match each dreamer with their soulmate in life. Michelle herself doesn’t do this. By now she has a clear head, and wants to tilt her face towards the sun. Redemption in life, when it comes, isn’t a flash of lightning. Sometimes, the moments that change us are quieter. When Michelle’s getting wrecked in the Mission, she holds that ‘Nights she fell asleep before the sun came up were good nights. It meant that her life was under control.’ In the end, she ‘shed a tear for the sun, the poor demonized sun the humans had run from when it only wanted to shine and bring warmth, she hoped there was another people somewhere feeling its happy glow.’