Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Passionate Mistakes And Intricate Corruption Of One Girl In America

I recently finished reading Michelle Tea's The Passionate Mistakes And Intricate Corruption Of One Girl In America. Part autobiography part fiction the book felt both familiar and at the same time like nothing I'd ever read. I guess it would fall into the genre of 'coming of age novel', kind of On The Road kind of Catcher In The Rye. Yet, when I finished it I realized that in most of those tales the male protagonist, eager to experience life, goes out into the world itching to stir up some trouble. Yet there's something different about coming of age for a girl, in this case a goth Bostonian turned lesbian prostitute. It seems that that boys can go looking for adventures, while when you're a girl just stepping out the front door will land you in a heap of trouble. Not that the protagonist, Michelle herself, wasn't passionate for her mistakes as the title so describes. If Judy Blume was rated X or if S.E. Hinton had written about the girls she knew instead of the boys, America might have had a novel about a true female coming of age. Sylvia Plath and Dorothy Allison, two of Tea's favorites, are the closest I can think of to capturing that unavoidable trouble.
The back cover describes Michelle as an "ex-goth, ex-drummer, ex-straight girl, ex-lesbian separatist, vegan graduate of a vocational high school" which kind of gives you an idea of the range of things she's tried on for size. The book opens up with Michelle outside an INXS show attempting to catch Michael Hutchinson's eye and torn between her desire to be a groupie and her " refusal to become part of the shrieking mob". She treks from Chelsea, Massachusetts into Boston regularly and tears through a couple depressing goth boyfriends. After a couple years of un-fulfillment she eventually ditches her boyfriend and the goth scene for girls and the early 90s. She gets deeply into what she refers to as the " Queer Nation/ Pynk Panthers/ R2N2 feminista baby dyke circle" which leads her to prostitution. So many books and movies have prostitutes, whether the fun loving maternal ones of John Irving's novels, or the flashy drug addled hookers found in any movie about New York in the 1980s. However, I can't ever remember reading about what its really like to be 22 and hoping the obscene amount of condoms don't fall out of your shitty purse while making more money than you could ever imagine from having sex with guys who have Parkinson's Disease or 'whose teddy bears wanna watch'. I especially like hearing about the "Magic Johnson draught" when there was a slump in prostitution because the johns realized anyone can get HIV. Michelle also takes you through a variety of lesbian relationships that really run the gamut and avoid the cliche of Ellen met Portia de Rossi and everyone lived happily ever after thing. The main love interest is Liz, who introduces her to hooking and who seems to alternate with Michelle as the culprit in their angst ridden adventures through Boston, Provincetown, and Arizona.
One aspect of the novel that really stuck out to me is that its not just the tale of an upper class liberal arts educated woman, its the story of a girl who grew up in a working class poor suburb of Boston, attended a vocational high school and worked shitty jobs for a while to afford to go to Salem State College. At one point while on a date that involves sitting on a fire escape drinking wine, Michelle and the girl she's crushing on discuss "how more than being a woman or gay it was all about class". This theme seemed particularly strong at the point when she attempts to find her dead beat dad in a Kathy Ackeresque and eventually unsuccessful scheme to kill him with the assistance of her lover, Liz. The descriptions of her visits to relatives houses in Chelsea, Mass remind me of the most run down places I've been in, the kinds of places where you can smell the staircase decomposing as you climb around stacks of old newspapers. It makes me think her off handed "its all about class" thing is true because we'll definitely see more books by women and lesbians in the future but your chances at a book deal are really slim when you can't afford college, rent, or a bus ticket.
While reading Brandon Stousy's foreword to the book I was reminded of an essay I read recently that Lucy Lippard had written at some point in the 70s. In the essay Lippard claims that she won't really be able to say what is "woman's art" until a generation surfaces that has been " taught by women and turned on by women's art". This novel by Michelle Tea is one of the first I've read to truly draw its primary inspiration from the work of other female writers. When Brandon Stousy asks her in the foreword if she was inspired by Charles Bukowski she replies that she always figured "Eileen Myles read Bukowski so girls like me didn't have to". She cites Myles as a huge inspiration and the one who gave her "permission to use her life as work". I also see some Chris Kraus, Cookie Mueller, and Kathy Acker in the work and I guess it all comes full circle since Kraus's Native Agents imprint of Semiotext published the book and Eileen Myles wrote the afterword. The story's exploration of class issues is pretty interesting when you consider Tea as the other side of the coin to Myles's wealthy blue blooded Massachusetts upbringing.
At some point early on in the novel Michelle describes her twin friends Judith and Janet, who people refereed to as "those crazy The Cure girls". The twins would show up on the library steps where the 'death-rock-slash-skater-crowd" hung out and sit by themselves cutting their arms and writing in their journals. They become Michelle's on again off again best friends until they eventually part ways and end up in different messes somewhere else in some other parts of the country. Michelle says that she knows she wouldn't know them if she saw them. This concept of the lost friends of your youth seems to embody the whole book for me. The fact that Michelle Tea could be any friend you grew up with. It made me think about all the girls I grew up with and the stories that filter back to you - so and so is divorced in Florida, so and so is traveling some other country with her girlfriend, so and so is performing in burlesque shows up North. It makes me remember back when we were bonding over the fact that we were so sure bellbottoms were coming back in style in 5th grade and that was the basis of our friendship. Reading this book was like reading all the steps between that moment and the fact that you wouldn't even recognize that friend now.

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