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‘Black Wave’ searches for love—and the next hit—at the end of the world

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Heather Scott Partington

Four stars

Black Wave By Michelle Tea, $19.

“You’re supposed to wrap it up nicely but it’s real life. It’s hard,” Michelle Tea says in Black Wave, through her narrator and surrogate, Michelle. “So I think I’m just going to have the world explode.”

Tea’s gritty and shrewdly constructed meta-fiction draws on 1990s San Francisco, Y2K panic and queer culture, while challenging the concept of the redemptive drug memoir. In this story, aptly set in San Francisco’s Mission district, swept by “insomnia” itself, Tea’s proxy tries to trace her own development, allowing the reader to see her struggle to write it true. Narrative Michelle deletes lovers and painful memories from her history, moves to LA, and ultimately waits out the end of a harsh and critical world.

The first half of Black Wave is a tightly woven exploration of gender identity and drug use in San Francisco’s queer community; Michelle hooks up in the bathrooms of the Mission’s bars, lives in a rent-controlled dump with friendly misfits and laments gentrification as she searches for comfort in the next hit. “Heroin was love,” she says, “the generic of love, what you got if you couldn’t afford the original.”

Tea writes Michelle mouthfuls of agitated prose reminiscent of Salinger. As Michelle descends into a spiral of poor decisions, making always the worst possible choice, she interrogates herself on the page as she writes the story, allowing us to see her erasure of painful memories and people. Tea forces us to consider what we’d rather not remember from our own lives.

Black Wave, like Elizabeth Crane’s recent novel, The History of Great Things, interrupts its own story to consider the merits of including true detail—it asks if the truth of the story itself is better served by deletions or retellings. In so doing, Tea pulls the curtain down on memoir; she considers on the page whether it’s better to leave some things—and people—out. Perhaps stories like Black Wave get closer to an emotional truth than nonfiction, and Tea lets us see that’s what she’s going for when Michelle eliminates a teenage lover from her story, and the countdown to the end of the world begins.

Tea shifts gears sharply mid-novel and lives out the apocalypse in a used bookstore, half-drunk on jugs of wine. Though its second half isn’t written with the same intensity as the first, Black Wave remains ambitious, raw and wholly readable.

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