Black Wave by Michelle Tea

Review published on November 5, 2017.

I have a confession to make; I read this book for such superficial reasons I am almost ashamed of myself, lured in by its ultra-cool cover and monochrome colour scheme. The blurb further piqued my interest, with a San Francisco setting, apocalyptic plot and glorious premise of “grungy and queer, Michelle is a grrrl hung up on a city in riot.” Even that sentence earns serious cool points. The execution didn’t quite match up to my expectations, unfortunately, although there’s an admirable inventiveness and fearlessness in Tea’s writing which is at times effervescent. While the protagonist (who, confusingly, shares her first name with the author) is largely unsympathetic and borders on irritating, the cast of characters that surrounds her is fascinating, and it’s highly refreshing to read a novel that steers so clear of heteronormativity, as well as embracing diversity in other forms too. The character of Michelle is just very self-involved and quite whiny; her voice never truly convinced me and I found myself wishing the focus would shift to her mothers or more interesting room-mates.

I’ve read lots of end-of-the-world books, and another refreshing aspect of Black Wave is Tea’s treatment of this eventuality as background rather than central focus; it was different and intriguing to see characters going about their usual business in the build-up to a catastrophe they knew was coming, rather than the more conventional idea of dealing with the crisis in its aftermath. In this respect, the latter stages of Black Wave nearly turned me around in my overall view.

Unfortunately, I’m a grammar pedant, and so Tea’s unusual use of capitalisation for every word of her protagonist’s dialogue – a conceit not applied to anyone else’s – grated on me. Was she accentuating the fictional Michelle’s tendency to view herself as the centre of everything with this self-aggrandising style? I’m not really sure, but it started to hurt my eyes fairly quickly. Another point of confusion was the meta aspect of the novel; about halfway through, the main character begins to comment on events as if she’s writing them, and this was another feature that baffled rather than engaged me.

Overall, I appreciated the ambitious and essentially bizarre nature of Black Wave, even though it wasn’t entirely satisfying to me. I imagine a brave and open-minded book group would find plenty to discuss here, between the novel’s polarising characters and unusual style.

Katy Goodwin-Bates 2/3

Black Wave by Michelle Tea
And Other Stories 9781908276902 pbk Feb 2017

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