Michelle Tea is one of San Francisco’s living literary heroes–if you go to readings in the city, you hear her name all the time as an example of San Francisco’s vital literary scene. I’ve even heard her read a few times over the years without really knowing who she was. Her name carries such weight that, at the recent Litquake Litcrawl event, I found myself explaining the RADAR Reading Series to a friend, saying: they do a lot of alternative-style narrative. And Michelle Tea is really involved in it.
So, I figured it was time to get with the program and actually read something she wrote. For my first foray, I chose Valencia (2000), the second and best known of Tea’s three memoirs. She is also the author, co-author or editor of nine other books in a range of genres including poetry, fiction, collected essays, and one graphic novel, but this book stands out as her signature title–the one that always makes it in the author bio or the introductory speech. In other words, the perfect place to start.
Valencia is a fast-paced if slightly meandering narrative of 20-something Michelle Tea’s substance-fueled adventures in 90s San Francisco. The story follows Michelle through a series of friendships, jobs, drunken hook-ups, and, of course, girlfriends–especially her doomed relationship with socially conscious Southern girl, Iris. Tea’s language is elastic–by turns spartan and poetic–creating a mobile, richly textured narrative with a voice that sucks you in and propels you forward through the story. The author comes through as fearless and eager, blindingly enthusiastic, in love with love and with the city, by turns casual and obsessive, self-absorbed yet self-aware, and always unapologetic. She makes a compelling narrator, and not always a completely sympathetic one.
Tea doesn’t dwell on the inner lives of her characters or on the significance the events that befall them, and that can make Valencia seem shallow. (That, and lines like this: “I could never come up with a good reason not to have a beer, so I completely understood. Plus she looked good with a beer in her hand.” Or this: “But I wondered about being with someone who tried to stop me from drinking coffee.”) The truth is, unlike most memoirs, the trajectory of the author’s life and the emotional weight of events doesn’t seem to be the point of this story. Valencia is, more than anything else, a tribute: to youth, to the particular culture represented by the eclectic cast of characters, and most of all to the city of San Francisco. It’s a world Tea brings to life with clarity and honesty and a certain amount of wistfulness. “But back to when it was thick and glistening and alive. I mean life, never knowing what was going to happen.”
Publisher’s Weekly has described Tea as “a modern-day Beat,” an assignation I find somewhat mystifying. Yes, Michelle Tea, like the Beats, writes about doing drugs, quitting jobs, sleeping with strangers, and meeting people on the bus–but that’s where the similarity ends.
Tea’s core themes center on feminism, class, and sex (or sex work). There were no female Beats. Just women who let the Beats crash in their spare bedrooms or shoot apples off their heads. The Beats were for the most part,1The big exception, of course, is group muse Neil Cassady. disaffected members of the middle class: Alan Ginsberg, Lucien Carr and Jack Kerouac all met at Columbia. William S. Burroughs went to Harvard. They weren’t born into poverty and abuse. They didn’t work as whores (although they paid some).
More importantly, the spirit of the Tea’s work is so fundamentally different from that of the Beat poets. The Beats were in many ways modern-day transcendentalists. The intellectual precursors of the hippies, they believed in the inherent holiness of life’s simplest aspects, and the inherent goodness of humanity’s purest desires. They rejected the mainstream emphasis on material wealth that characterized the post-war years. They looked for beauty in small good things, but also in seedier side of society. More than that, they had confidence that all this mattered in some way larger then themselves.
Tea, like an up-beat Brett Easton Ellis, leaves her readers with the vague impression that none of what happens matters all that much. She has post-modernist, post-hippie, self-analytical sensibilities that prevent her from taking anything (even her own love and pain) too terribly seriously. “Even I was bored with trying to convince her that she was in love with me, or that she should be.” Tea writes, on breaking up with a girl friend. Describing late nights with a group of friends, she recalls, “…everyone’s political consciousness was very fresh and important and we loved to dress them up and trot them around the ring.”
Even during some of the more emotionally charged moments of the story, Tea retains her perspective. On tumbling into the ill-fated relationship that arguably forms the center of the story, she has this to say: “It was that gross. We would just stare at each other…It was very meaningful, we shivered with it… Once, when I was very high on pot, Iris raked her fingers up my back, and I had a vision of the world being born, dry land splitting into rivers. I was out of my mind.” All this grand, dramatic imagery, but also that self-regulating reality check (it was gross, I was out of my mind) that is the trademark of her generation.
So, ultimately, Valencia is a fast, fun read, artfully narrated and dotted with moments of surprising humor. It might not change your life, but it can definitely brighten your day.
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|1.||↑||The big exception, of course, is group muse Neil Cassady.|