On a trip to Russia in 1995 I was told by the young writers I met there that when a certain famed Soviet novelist returned to his native land, he was an offensive anachronism to them. They were angered by his sentimental yearnings for the old Russia, for the old Russian language. That language had failed them, these writers said, and they explained that the older author’s historic importance had had everything to do with a crucial need in the Soviet moment for “the novel of information.”
In the New Russia, it was explained to me, they had information but it was useless. We are like you now, they said.
But the opposite is true. In light of the persistent reality-flattening of corporate culture, with entertainment conglomerates devouring publishers who are already devouring each other, and all bookstores becoming one, the kind of information being put out about who we are grows thinner daily, despite our vivid immersion in data. America, it seems, in terms of the true diversity of our cultural product, is beginning to look a lot like the former Soviet Union.
The good news is that an underground is continually being renewed in the cities and elsewhere. A cultural overlay exists–an unbeatable one, we may hope, thanks to inexpensive new technologies and the unstoppable youthful desires to travel and create.
Michelle Tea’s book The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America is a gem of endangered narration from a loud and highly marginalized subculture, in particular the third wave of feminism. Tea’s work resists categorization, and like all surprising vanguard literature, it’s the news–a hunk of lyric information that coolly, then frantically, describes the car wreck of her generation and everything that surrounds it.
Passionate Mistakes is full of misadventure, as its title coyly suggests, but it’s not just “about” being a sex worker, or “about” lesbianism or her early childhood in Chelsea, a city near Boston that was so depressed it almost went out of business. It’s not about lousy jobs or bad Catholic school education, either, although, paradoxically, it is exactly that.
Tea’s book is a reminder of how litanies work and how inventory (via Thoreau, Kerouac and Stein) is still one of the purest kinds of transcendence evidenced in American literature. In a culture of silence, inventory means resistance. And of course, the detailed turning of any American life reveals the American soul.
We witness a bunch of girls hanging outside an INXS concert. Michelle leans out there smoking; she cannot paw forward and scream like the others. “I just could not toss myself into the context of those girls…. This had always been my curse in my desire to be a groupie, my refusal to become part of the shrieking mob.” From this sullen opening, the book crackles forward in a skein of five stories. It’s set mostly in the city of Boston and its suburbs, which are briefly lit by the movements of girls. The first chapter is a tale of girlfriends. Michelle meets a pair of dark twins at the INXS concert, twins whose affections seem almost climate-controlled. Initially, they court Michelle, full of enthusiasm and interest. Then, “Judith and Janet soon hated me again, a mysterious animosity continuing for about a year. I think it was ’88 and they loved me again. It was summer…”
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By the end of the chapter, the sisters leave Michelle’s orbit for good. And Michelle sums one of them up like this: “And I know I wouldn’t know her if I saw her.” Gone. Brusqueness is an important node in Tea’s chaotic system. Oblivion is punctuation, and momentum builds because this author is bursting with energy and doubt. The constant divulgence of names and places and events creates a panning effect in the narrative, and an overwhelming sense of decenteredness results, the author’s chill edicts–“I wouldn’t know her”–serving as a device to cue the reader to move on.
Michelle picks her next friend, Joez, who lives in Salem, because of her perfect makeup and her joblessness, and the fact that she takes poetry courses at the community college–just that. Michelle, in her own post-high school blur, nonetheless has a job and is ambivalently attached to a more conventional search for meaning. She admires Joez because “she just hit fast forward and skipped right over the segment of life I was currently mired in.” And then we watch their ritual of the streets. Says Michelle:
I would ride the bus into Boston on Friday nights, alone with my book on my lap and all my weird makeup, black hair and black lipstick, and hopefully the bus riders of Chelsea Massachusetts would leave me alone but usually I would have to endure some kind of humiliation…. And would gaze out the window as we passed over the choppy harbor. And Joez would be there on the other side of the bridge, holding a plastic Tower Records bag packed with clothes for the weekend, books, a walkman for the train…. If it was really terrrible weather like snow or rain we would climb down into Haymarket Station and take the green line, but it was best when we walked. Climbing the slowly winding steps at Government Center where normal people ate lunch during the week but at night it was big and empty like a swimming pool with all the water drained out…. We were walking into a great drunken adventure. Past the rat-ridden alley that led to the Orpheum theater where bands we liked often played…. Down the street from the Orpheum was a teeny little liquor store that sold 2 for 1 bottles of wine and I would grab a couple by their slender necks, the dark red sloshing around inside, and we would walk across the street to the Boston Common…. If it was white and icy and the ugly naked trees were hung with lights we would take quick little steps, hurried in the cold but careful not to slip.
The path of this book is meandering and remarkable, like a party or an auto accident. The only preparation for the next turn of events is that a character dwindles in the excitement of the new scene, becoming less central. By the book’s second chapter boys become the object and “Ian” appears. And quickly he is part of a plot to pick up girls. Girls lead to politics. There are quiet girlfriends and noisy, brash ones. And there are affairs, and graphic sexual descriptions.
Michelle winds up a sex worker–the book’s most important girlfriend, Liz, brings her to that. There is a lot of sex in Passionate Mistakes, but it’s less romantic than a walk. The point of sex here is not to excite but to exert one’s power over shame. To claim one’s imperviousness. Tea manages, heroically, to flatten (and reject) the vaunted power of women, to abandon our poufy roles of icon, muse and temptress–resistance, again.
Tea’s wit and matter-of-factness about sex reminds me of a Karen Finley story. Standing on stage, her naked body smeared with chocolate, she smiled out at the audience and reportedly remarked–“This is what the fuss is all about?”
The morning after a tryst with an older woman, Michelle finds Liz making a sandcastle. It is on a private beach, one you could be on only if you owned land in the town. Liz did, which perhaps gives a deeper meaning to her silent castle-making. Michelle owns nothing anywhere, so she builds her own kind of edifice. “The Darth Vader of sand castles,” she says. “Nuggets of styrofoam, a Snickers wrapper…. This Is My Kingdom,” she tells Liz. “I Think We’re At War.”
Later she takes Liz and her friend Teri’s life apart (in a lyrical sense), writing:
Sitting around their apartment with sun coming in through the porch and splashing onto the wood floor where the cats swam orange and grey in the light. I always thought that some people had money and some people didn’t and I never asked questions of the ones who did because I figured it was something I just wouldn’t understand. Thick blue glass that held coffee, an antique sewing table with rows of little drawers like secrets, I didn’t want to know their history; I just touched them and accepted that they were there. The bathroom was filled with things to put on your skin, mango things and avocado things, it was like Liz and Teri were from another country and this was the stuff of their culture.
And she trumps herself at the vignette’s end. “Actually they were whores.” These are the girls who, although privileged, lead Michelle into a life of prostitution. The subtle but emphatic suggestion is that all girls in the comfy harem of the middle class are whores. It’s a belief born of rage and deprivation, sure, but also one rooted in observation of what comes first, loyalty to people or things.
One of the hallmarks of bourgeois fiction is a preoccupation with contentment and privacy, with beautiful places and the lives conducted within them. Perhaps the core requirement of this genre is that a story move along at an even, almost businesslike clip, nothing too weird, please, as the characters get teased out evenly and obediently. The novel this yields is a moderate yarn, and what Tea is spinning is really quite the opposite. I would link her with Charles Bukowski, both Jane and Paul Bowles, Violette Leduc and a less obvious predecessor, Christopher Isherwood, who dedicatedly tracked his own days in the demimonde. More recent writers keeping a loose narrative rein like Tea include Cookie Mueller, Rebecca Brown, Kathy Acker, Linda Yablonsky, David Wojnarowicz, Dorothy Allison, Sapphire, Dennis Cooper and Lydia Davis.
Certainly Michelle Tea maintains a shaky but constant upper hand in this novel of gaudy triumph (over meanness and hypocrisy) and class war. Ultimately the author is an observer of the total crusade of “kids,” the growing underclass of those who, by inclination, identity or lack of possessions, are never confirmed “adult” by society, and so we are deprived of their stories, and they of their own reality. Tea’s lyric inventory illuminates the cultural split between owning and being, and the importance of naming all those who just are.
There is a glitch in this book, for me, because of an episode that doesn’t get told. Michelle’s stepfather was a peeping Tom, it seems, and several times his habit of observing Michelle and her sister in their early teens is alluded to as a crime that resulted in much else. The impact is therefore immense, but the story never gets told. Those tiny holes in the bathroom doors, in their bedroom walls, represent such a loss of privacy, so much forced divulgence, that I wonder who’s being protected in the narrative by not writing out the episode more boldly. It feels like the only shame in this book. Perhaps Tea is afraid that her experiences as a sex worker or a dyke will be interpreted in light of this abuse, and the power of her narrative will be dissipated or dismissed outright. Conveniently pathologized. I’m convinced that would not be true, and I find myself thirsting for the details. I hope we get them in Tea’s next book.
The last story in Passionate Mistakes is about a betraying girlfriend, and there’s nothing shocking in that. Everyone betrays everyone else in this book, and of course in life–which here darts and heaves and stops and releases itself with elegance in the lyric wilderness of one girl’s mind.