What I Learned: Michelle Tea

Rose of No Man’s Land and the Small Scale Crisis.

Once upon a time in the really ancient year of 2004 I very nearly moved to Portland. So very nearly, in fact, that I went apartment hunting and found a place right on the edge of where the city’s residential area gives way to garages and warehouses. It had a view of the freeway up on concrete piles heading toward the Fremont bridge and even though it was the cheapest listing I found it was more expensive than any rent I’d ever paid. I figured that if I at least had A.) a crappy job and B.) a place to stay I could make it, but my problem was the employment half of the equation. Add in the fact I’d be moving from the Midwest, counting on my beater car to make it over two thousand miles (in a row) in the process, and the logistics became increasingly daunting. My choice was this: commit to something without being able to pay for it first, or… don’t.

That’s what I was trying to decide when I first stepped into Powell’s City of Books. Perhaps not the best browsing mindset. I remember the shelves were emptier than I expected, and that I found a few interesting used titles but decided to put them back. It hit me in that moment. I felt broke. I was broke. That was already a big sign my plan was caving in, even if I didn’t know it yet. Standing there emoting brokeness. I gravitated toward the window where at least the light from the city was still vibrating at a frequency I could enjoy, and there in the corner tucked out of the way was maybe the only thing that could have appealed to me in that moment: the local shelf. And on it, glowing like possibility, was a signed copy of semi-local Michelle Tea’s Valencia, a memoir of her experience jumping coast to coast and living gritty in San Francisco’s queer scene. (The red cover, girl sitting in the gutter. Swoon.)

It was a stars-alignment moment. If I hadn’t been halfway across the country half-dreaming another life I never would have stumbled across it. The book was grungy, sub-working class lit that resonated deeply with my situation. There is a truth in the material Tea uses to build her stories, whether it is the dysfunctional poverty of her childhood recollections in The Chelsea Whistle or Black Wave’s stale-glittery reckoning with heavy drinking and what encroaching middle age means for post-punk, chronically underemployed castaways. When I read her stuff I recognize a kinship with the world I know and the places I am from.

So, with abundant admiration, I’d like to share What I Learned about writing from Tea’s 2005 Rose of No Man’s Land, because out of all the memorable text she has spun, the scene I’ve found myself thinking about most since first laying eyes on it is this novel’s opening sequence.

Let’s start with a bit of context. Rose of No Man’s Land is a coming of age story about a girl who is going to realize she is a butch lesbian. It deals with mall culture, tattoos, mini golf, and being so poor that when you run through the local Chinese restaurant’s coin fountain while high on drugs it’s just as sparkly as fairy land and the quarters might as well be gold doubloons. It’s about how Trisha Driscoll, at fourteen, is going to go up against local drug dealers, heartbreak, and her own family, and come off the better, and harder, for it.

While many things (the whirlwind arc, the world building, the lessons learned, the romance, and especially the conclusion) make the novel click, the part that flat out floored me was the opening chapter. It runs like a clinic of voice and character design, but beyond that the way it sets up narrative structure by launching the plot is inspired. Let me show you what I mean. Here’s how the book opens:

People always say to me that they wish they had my family. Like my family structure, or my lack of family structure or whatever. What they mean is, they wish they never had to go to school or clean their houses, or they wish they never got into trouble with their parents. Serious trouble, like when you get grounded or your favorite thing gets taken away and locked in a drawer somewhere. I guess they wish their parents didn’t give so much of a shit and since mine clearly do not give any sort of shit at all, they’re jealous. Really these people are massively wrong. It’s like when guys say, ‘Oh if I had tits I’d stay home and play with them all day, I’d never get out of bed.’ Believe it or not I have actually heard my Ma’s boyfriend Donnie say this. I heard him say it with a mouth full of ham salad from Shaw’s, the pink mayonnaisey mush that he eats by the spoonful like a modern caveman. He doesn’t even bother to make a sandwich out of it and it’s not because he’s on one of the no-bread diets like my sister Kristy. Donnie just has a natural aversion to civilization.

Trisha cuts right to the chase, distinguishing between bullshit perception and the hard reality of her situation: People say they wish they had my family, but what I really have is Donnie – who is Not Family. And a mother who is a couch-dwelling hypochondriac. And a sister who wants to be on reality TV only in a different reality. Her character is no-nonsense authoritative from the beginning, yet is undermined due to the fact that she is the youngest member of the household, lowest in the family hierarchy.

And my god the style points! Using ham salad to perfectly capture the base grossness of Donnie’s character in particular, and shitbag Ma’s Boyfriends / Step Dads in general is nothing short of inspired. Tea completely nails this riff a bit later by referring to him as her Mother’s “food-eater boyfriend Donnie” which is an amazing putdown precisely because it only makes sense if you are paying attention to Trisha’s worldview. To get it you have to get her. We all eat food, but Donnie is observed, judged, and condemned for doing so. Moreover, there is nothing at all being hidden here: “to hear Ma talk about it, it’s a real crapshoot and the fact that Donnie hasn’t tried to get it on with me or my sister actually makes him a great man as opposed to simply not a criminal in that particular arena.” Donnie is a known entity observed in the proper context.

So no, this is not a story where steps need to be taken to uncover the dysfunctional nature of relationships or the antagonistic malignancies lurking inside the house. Trisha  has that on lockdown from the beginning, and if you’re thinking perhaps it’s too out of character for a teenager to be so aware of her surroundings I’d counter that assuming skeletons need to be hidden away in closets is maybe too often the dreamwork of family drama narratives. Sometimes those rotting bones are right there; everyone knows, yet nobody cleans up the forensic evidence.

After establishing the contours of the family dynamic, the introduction moves on to Trisha’s specific problems and what I’ve been thinking of as The Small Scale Crisis. In this case, it is the fact that Trisha wakes up late, alarm clock blinking, and realizes that she has missed the last day of 9th grade. This, however, is not the result of random misfortune, but rather the practiced mal-effect of her family. The outage has a known cause, namely that Trisha’s sister tripped the breaker that morning while getting ready for school by overloading the house’s shitty wiring with a blow dryer. Yet even though Mom, Donnie, and sis know this happened, they all have left Trisha to sleep in without warning. Their neglect plunges our protag into the structureless malaise of summer a day early, robbing her of the transitional excitement of the last day of school. There is magic in that day, after all. It’s a guaranteed happy ending, for one thing, and even though there are no lessons everyone pays more attention. The last day brings out mindfulness by its very essence, which is basically the opposite state of what Trisha finds herself inhabiting in its absence: perpetual boredom, pointlessness, neglect.

The crisis is that the only thing worth anticipating has been taken away, the outside world is closed off, and instead Trisha has to deal with the reality of life in a family that wouldn’t notice if she did nothing, ever. This could fester, subvert, but nah. Trisha confronts her Mom and Donnie right away:

Well, Why Didn’t Someone Wake Me Up Or Check My Alarm Or Something? Didn’t You Know My Alarm Wouldn’t Go Off?

Donnie started nodding vigorously, tapped his greasy head with the tip of the fork he was eating from. He swallowed a clot of ramen. I did think of that, I did. And then I forgot. It slipped my mind. His tongue shot out like an undersea monster, eyeless and newborn. It scraped the bit of flavor packet from the corner of his lips and retreated. Sorry, kiddo.

On the television a newly made-over skank mom walked onto the stage in a khaki pants suit and subdued golden jewelry. Everyone cheered. That doesn’t look so hot, either, Ma observed. She was done with me. But I don’t think much would look good on her. What do you think, Don?

That’s our protagonist, Talking In Caps, not taking shit, getting to the root of everything. Donnie, of all people, indicates that he at least thought of her needs, but fucked up the execution. Ma, finally, has sunk back into television. It’s tempting to see this as laziness, but it’s not. It’s tragic. Ma is an oversensitive soul in her own fashion. She’s hyperaware of her bodily existence via her hypochondria, and she spends endless time and attention on the television. She’s an audience, a judge, a critical gaze asserting looks matter, only the tragic nature of this whole situation is she gives no time or attention to her daughter. And Trisha? Trisha confronts them again.

Hello! I made my voice extra slicey, to cut through the television haze they’d been marinating in all morning. Hello, I’m A Real Person Here In Your Living Room Who Missed The Last Day Of School For The Entire Year. That’s A Little Anticlimactic, Don’t You Think? And It Would Be Really Cool If You Could Admit That It Was Your Fault.

Oh, here it comes, the blame game, Ma sighed. Ma loves self-help books. She doesn’t have the attention span to actually finish one, but she gets in deep enough to fish out some groovy new lingo.

It’s Not A Game, Ma. It’s Real. I Really Missed School. It’s Really Your Fault.

Faced with such tenacity, Ma goes on the offensive. She suggests a solution: a battery powered alarm clock, and encourages Trisha to put it on ‘the wish list,’ a piece of paper on the fridge where everyone writes down things they need. Mostly it’s domestic items like a towel rack, towels, George Foreman grill, etc. The list has been around for years, mostly unrequited. “There were about fifteen desired objects ahead of my alarm clock,” Trisha notes. “I wasn’t holding my breath.” How wonderful that the proffered solution is so obviously unhelpful. Wish to buy something you can’t afford to replace a human gesture of love/support that has been withheld.

The Small Scale Crisis is of paramount importance to the protagonist, but inconsequential to others. Missing the last day of school animates Trisha’s emotion, and puts her into conflict with her surroundings: a family who will passively laze away existence – forever. What she wants is for them to care for her, but even despite having the innate capacity to stick up for herself this is not forthcoming. And so, from this inciting incident, Trisha Driscoll is launched into summer with the muddled call to action: guided only by dissatisfaction, she must find and value her true, independent self.

For me, Rose of No Man’s Land has a perfect first chapter. Its characterization is on point, the language hallelujah, but most importantly the conflict incorporates and amplifies the family’s simmering antagonisms. By starting small, the crisis reflects Trisha’s unimportance to an indifferent existence, and from there the novel goes off like a bottle rocket, arriving at an equally perfect conclusion filled with heartbreak, destruction, disappointment, anger, yet above all else the sense of being really really really awake.

So that’s what I learned! Mostly Tea is known as a writer of memoir, but in Rose of No Man’s Land she puts the novel through its paces. Those forces come together in Black Wave, which is sort of an experimental, edited memoir-apocalypse hybrid that I also highly recommend. But that’s a discussion for another post.

And speaking of true, independent selves, I decided against Portland and ended up taking a crappy job in a liquor store on the edge of town. The assistant manager at this place was ten years older than me, and had himself moved to Portland and back. He hadn’t been able to find a job even at a convenience store, and his best story about his time there was that once he’d gone sledding with people while high on mushrooms only to discover halfway through that they were on a cemetery hill, the kind with those flat little monuments in the grass. I split a year later, headed for Chicago and life beyond. I guess the lesson all around is you never know where you’ll find yourself… till you do.

– DK March 2019

Writing Technique Takeaways:

The Small-Scale Crisis: You encounter the character in the middle of a small scale crisis. This contextualizes their world, defines the character’s temperament and social standing, places them in conflict with their surroundings, and functions as an exciting incident for the longer story, establishing a call to action.

You Are What You Eat: a character is defined in the way they eat something. Like Donny and his ham salad.