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Without a Net

Michelle Tea's Debut Novel Returns As Reminder Of Her Nascent Formidable Talent

Deanna Staffo

By Rahne Alexander | Posted 10/31/2007

Michelle Tea

Metro Gallery Nov. 6, part of the Sister Spit tour with Meliza Banales, Texta Queen, Tara Jepsen, Dexter Flowers, Chelsea Starr, and Kat Marie Yoas.

It is tempting, with the reissue of Michelle Tea's first novel, The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America, to follow the author unbidden down a primrose path of Generation X nostalgia, to wax sentimental about the days when nearly all crises could be temporarily assuaged with enough eyeliner. Passionate Mistakes, released this month in a 10-year anniversary edition, is the same book it was when it was first released: a furious, confusing, adolescent Bildungsroman that somehow defies nostalgia. At the time, thanks to some of Tea's early contemporaries, this work may have been easily dismissed as one more slacker comedy. As shown in her subsequent work-2000's Valencia, 2002's The Chelsea Whistle, and the acclaimed 2004 graphic novel Rent Girl-Tea is just as interested in confronting challenges as Ernest Hemingway ever was, and revisiting Passionate Mistakes shows that she's been serious about her work since the get-go.

All the elements that Tea would refine in her later writing are clearly present: her rapid-fire delivery, her one-liner sociopolitical analysis, and her against-all-odds yearning for a better world. The book still stands on it own, but it's clearly an early novel by a writer beginning to find her place between the ugly truth and literary license. As such, it's a delight to see that Mistakes still defies sentimentality, even if you're looking for it.

At its core, the novel feels like a travelogue. The physical travel almost never escapes Massachusetts. There is a jaunt into New Hampshire for tattoos and a frantic jump to Tucson, Ariz., but the journey embedded in these pages is almost entirely internal. The characters who pass through do so with Candide speed, but it's never clear that any of them are physically going anywhere, either.

Passionate Mistakes is saturated in the culture and politics of the pre-riot grrrl era. Tea finds her historicity through name-checking the Lords of the New Church and Twin Peaks, not so much for the sake of street credibility as for disaffected mise-en-scène. These names mean as much as the larger sociopolitical events that peek in from time to time-abortion clinic defenses, the 1993 gay and lesbian march on Washington, the first Gulf War. It all fades into an impressionist backdrop for the wrenching misadventures of queer youth, many of whom seem already damaged beyond repair.

One tale, told early in the book, finds the protagonist skulking outside an INXS concert circa 1988, alternately lusting after the lead singer and berating herself for participating in a groupie cliché. She winds up slinking off after turning down the advances of the drummer. Passionate Mistakes is not so much a kiss-and-tell memoir as it is a more punk-rock version of a really good Ani DiFranco record, so the names don't matter so much as the events themselves. INXS vanishes into deserved obscurity, we are left with a monologue revealing the ongoing struggle with the weathered line between personal and political, which is very near to the boundary between fiction and memoir.

Writers of all calibers have busied themselves smudging the line between fiction and memoir for some time, always with varied results. There are the publicity-stunt performers such as J.T. LeRoy or Augusten Burroughs whose work, however initially intriguing, eventually disappears into the status quo like so many Tetris squares. In the hands of the gifted-a list that would certainly include Kurt Vonnegut, William S. Burroughs, Kathy Acker, David Wojnarowicz, Eileen Myles, and Tea herself-that line becomes inconsequential; the stories become at once larger than both life and lies. ★

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