“There’s something great about being at the bottom of your own personal loserness,” muses reluctant heroine Trisha Driscoll in Michelle Tea’s novel Rose of No Man’s Land (MacAdam/Cage, 2005).
When Nietzsche (or was it Conan the Barbarian?) said “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” he could’ve been referring to this hard-luck 14-year-old — only in Trish’s case, “What doesn’t kill you makes you more surly,” or “What doesn’t kill you makes for angsty fiction,” might be more apt.
For Tea, a prolific writer and spoken-word artist known for founding all-girl slam poets Sister Spit and for her involvement with the touring Sex Workers Art Show, Rose is her first jaunt into fiction. But don’t expect a timid debut — this author jumps right in with a gritty day-in-the-life tale from the land of broken homes, strip malls and molar-grinding drugs.
Shades of grime
“It made me entirely happy to be alive,” enthused Book Forum, compelling one to wonder if the reviewer actually cracked the book. Happy to be alive and not a teenager stuck in a dead-end town, crashing from a meth binge, maybe. Which isn’t to say that Rose is unreadable (actually, it’s highly addictive, fast-paced and a guilty pleasure of sorts) — but the story line isn’t the stuff from which inspirational phrases superimposed over images of Kodachrome sunsets are culled.
“It started out innocent, my backpack, but since then it has acquired a stolen phone, a wad of stolen cash, now some mystical-sounding drug. Soon alcohol would be added,” Trish reports. “There would be little room for anything else illegal.”
This is after she misses her last day of school, loses her job at the coolest store in the mall (she was hired under false pretenses: Her ambitious older sister passed off an uncharacteristically dolled-up Trish as a popular girl’s best friend), and heads off on a grand misadventure with her new pal Rose.
In Trish’s world — a Northeast-seaboard hellhole — adults are not to be trusted. Her mother is a living room-bound hypochondriac, her mother’s boyfriend a jobless small-time thief, and everyone she encounters seethes with dysfunction. It’s a wonder any of them get up in the morning, so besotted are they with narcissism, addiction and delusion.
All of this is narrated in that angry-yet-honest tone reminiscent (it must be confessed) of Holden Caulfield in the opening lines of Catcher in the Rye: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
“I found Trish’s voice to be very hopeful and inspired and energized, even when she was confused or sad or messed up,” reveals Tea by e-mail. “Because she is constantly analyzing, and thinking about things, questioning what she sees and calling bulls••t. That sort of personality is more likely to get the hell out of her dismal environment when she’s old enough, so I found a lot of hope in Trish’s voice, her cynicism and willingness to be adventurous.”
But it’s not the grim surroundings that make Rose stand out — books like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Cat’s Eye and Hairstyles of the Damned have proved, many times over, that coming of age is often a bleak prospect.
What sets Tea’s work apart is, first, her unique and sometimes confusing way of dealing with conversation. Instead of using standard quotes, Trish speaks With The First Letter Of Each Word Capitalized, and everyone around her speaks in the urgent hush of italics.
“When writing memoir, I’d have to summarize a lot of the dialogue, re-remember it, and knowing that I wasn’t remembering it exactly I was hesitant to put those quotes around it — they look so official,” the writer, whose previous works include The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl In America, explains. “And there was something about putting the dialogue in quotes that looked off to me. They seemed to look aesthetically wrong in my writings.”
But more importantly, this is a story of a girl who discovers sex, and with it her own identity as a lesbian. Even in the 21st century, this is a bit of an anomaly. But — no kid gloves or dewy kisses here — Tea gives these love-stirrings the same blunt, in-your-face treatment as the rest of the book’s hard-bitten issues.
“It was as if it had never, ever occurred to her to give a f••k. She had no f••k inside of her to give. She was void of f••k,” Trish tells us of Rose. And though the author told Utne.com, “I personally don’t like queer authors being differentiated on bookshelves from non-queer authors,” she is also quick to point out, “Well, I am a queer author.”
“It would be silly to deny that,” she continues to Xpress. “My queerness absolutely colors how I see the world, my perspectives and expectations, and my actual life options have been determined by my queerness.”
While Rose isn’t being marketed to teens, Tea — currently a high school teacher — is often approached by young people who’ve found her work. And though this is a far cry from anything Judy Blume ever committed to paper, it might prove an affirming (if not uplifting) read for the right teen.
Michelle Tea reads from Rose of No Man’s Land at Malaprop’s Bookstore (55 Haywood St.) on Saturday, May 20. Free. 7 p.m. 254-6734.