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…”