“Why did she think her world wasn’t supposed to change?”
As far as existential crises go, the first musing of Michelle Tea’s Black Wave is pretty tame. It’s the kind of thing you think when you come across road construction on your regular route to the super market, annoyed at yourself for missing the sign posted for the past two weeks. But painful transitions and the illusion of permanence are at the heart of this formally experimental novel, whose protagonist looks for meaning in her own Californian life as her world advances toward extinction.
Black Wave’s protagonist, a writer also named Michelle, leads a . . . turbulent life. She’s queer, sexually aggressive, addicted to heroin, prone to other substance abuse, living in poverty, half-assing her artistic inclinations, and drawn to fleeting and emotionally destructive relationships. All of the drama that those characteristics bring together is complicated by human-induced climate change. San Francisco is choking, scorching, and starving itself almost as fast as dot-com yuppies gentrify it.
Just as one gets used to cringing through Michelle’s most self-destructive episodes, you must make a painful transition of your own. We learn that the Michelle we’ve met is not who we think she is and plunge into a very different, yet still apocalyptic, life story of Michelle. While maintaining a vivid and funny tone for an apocalyptic novel, Tea lets us into a sad, shitty Los Angeles apartment cluttered with chemical addiction, co-dependency, sexual recklessness, gentrification, and an artist’s loneliness in an endearing and memorable story.
Addiction and Apocalypse
When times are looking especially bleak in Black Wave, Michelle’s brother Kyle succumbs to despair and describes what scientists expect will happen to the world in the short-term:
“There is some tsunami that is big enough to take out the entire West Coast of North America. They’re tracking it. It’s just a baby now, a baby wave, but it’s going to grow big enough to do that, and once it does all the waves will be like that, all waves become tsunamis and the ocean eats the land.”
Unlike the liquid doomsday staple of big-budget disaster movies, the tsunami in Tea’s novel becomes an analogy for chemical addiction later in the novel. After a night imbibing too much wine, Michelle walks to work with a hangover like Ragnarök. It doesn’t go very well:
“The black wave of vomit stirring inside her commanded she pause in the middle of the side-walk to lean against a street sign. The metal pole burned her bare arm but it didn’t even register. Michelle felt crazy. How was she sick like this again?”
Juxtapose Michelle’s hangover with the coast-crushing tsunami. She clearly sees the danger and the pattern forming—“She knew that she would forget how she felt right then, dizzy and trembling on a burning street sign, she would forget all about it, and the lure of the wine would somehow seem the only sane impulse”—and feels almost powerless to stop it.
Like the successive waves of the tsunami Kyle described, each of Michelle’s binges will be increasingly devastating, harder to rebuild from, and—like being caught in the tide—more exhausting to escape the cycle. (How do you break the pattern when things are so wrecked already? And why bother? Both questions haunt conversations around climate change and drug abuse.) After all, there is a certain sort of peace beneath the surface if you let the wave wash over you. Addiction is an apocalypse with one victim.
Of Oracles and Addicts
What is it about the destitute and the doped up that always warrants comparison to prophecy? Does the human brain, when flooded with chemicals, reach an otherwise unattainable plane of experience? Or is it that the phantasmagoric utterances of the prophet strike the same nonsensical tone as of the druggie? Either way, the comparison stands. In The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell, Aldous Huxley’s landmark philosophical treatise on hallucinogenic drug use and human cognition, he writes of his experience taking a psychotropic drug that, “Two great appetites of the soul—the urge to independence and self-determination and the urge to self-transcendence—were fused with, and interpreted in the light of, a third—the urge to worship.”
The characters of Black Wave are “accustomed to the spooky public outbursts of addicts and crazy people” but Michelle’s roommate instead tries to “treat them as oracles dispensing coded messages.”
By calling out oracles, Tea begs us to consider history. The most famous oracular priest was the one stationed at Delphi in central Greece. Many flocked to the Oracle at Delphi to learn the winding path the future might take or gain counsel for present problems. But it has been widely reported that the oracles may have relied on more than their inner vision to dole out prophecy. According to one recent synthesis of archaeological research on Delphi,
“Even during the Oracle at Delphi’s time, it was widely known that the Oracle’s visions had a practical cause. Gas seeped out of the cracks in the cave where she sat, causing her to talk nonsense. This nonsense would then be interpreted by priests around her. Some of the predictions were surprisingly accurate—according to legend.”
Michelle wishes “that the street people of her neighborhood were, in fact, prophets, apocalyptically wise, witches damaged from being born into a time with no respect for magic.” While she is inclined to appreciate more mystical explanations of the world—Michelle happily psychoanalyzes people based on their astrological symbols, for example—her hope may be self-involved instead of magnanimous. After all, she prefers “this story over the alternate of everyone having chemical imbalances and genetic predispositions toward alcoholism.” Writers like Michelle struggle with conveying ideas and being understood, and this would be even more true for a drug-addicted queer woman. Being an oracle or prophet would legitimize her art and her lifestyle in a way that chemical dependency does not.
We are left with a hard-to-answer set of questions. What grants an oracle the blessing of a civilization? and an addict the scorn and derision of the same? Who, ultimately, is closer to capital-T truth?
Burgess, Anthony. The Wanting Seed.
Didion, Joan. Slouching Toward Bethlehem.
Duyvis, Corinne. On the Edge of Gone.