Seal Press ($13)
by Christine Kennick
Not quite a novel but more than a memoir, Michelle Tea's Valencia is a lesbian manifesto, a portrait of a life lived outside the mainstream. Tea's high-energy prose gives the reader a cinema-verite style peek at her world, bouncing us from street to bar to party in San Francisco's Castro and Mission districts, where all the action is.
The book begins with a graphic sexual encounter, the first of many; by page six we are past the prerequisite blurry seduction in a bar and on to the main event: "She placed the knife flat on my nipple and went at my throat with her teeth, all the while making these urgent little animal noises. Petra was really into the knife . . . I was really into processing the knife." Never mind that this S& M encounter is probably placed here for shock value; it also shows that nothing is shocking to Tea, that she'll roll with any punch and find something in it to consider.
The strength of this books lies in Tea's skills as an observer, one who can squeeze a bit of commentary into enthralling one-liners ("Gwynn ate an Orange Julius hot dog loaded up with so much garbage, I wondered if it was even vegetarian to kiss her"). At her best, the stream-of-consciousness narration is a delightful ride to be on, shifting us into other registers of memory and relationship: "Oh, I wanted one of Gwynn's cigarettes so badly and she wouldn't give one to me. Winston's are what my dead grandmother smoked. I loved her so much, Aquarian like me, big round glasses she wore even while swimming, a gauzy kerchief tied under her chin to keep the chlorine off her hair…" Unfortunately, though, for the bulk of the book Tea shifts gears a little too fast, preferring to keep the imagery cascading rather than examine anything in detail:
Donna had an original Howard Finster and that was kind of impressive, a wooden animal like a giraffe, covered with all his rambling scrawl, stuff about god and visions. But I hated Donna's house. The kitchen was under construction, with a plaster-filled sink plop in the middle of the kitchen, and the bedroom had this depressing yellowy lightbulb depressing. Donna was fanatically trying to get Iris to smoke more and more pot . . . It was kind of twisted, the obsessive hospitality of a southern drug addict.
Tea may hope her pinball machine prose has the same effect as Finster's "rambling scrawl" but it instead begins to wear the reader down: rather than generalities such as "kind of impressive" and "kind of twisted" we begin to yearn for a focused look at something, anything. But everything is equal in Tea's world; when she accompanies her lover Iris to her straight sister's wedding in Tennessee, Tea writes: "For me it was an anthropological study and also kind of zany." Maybe so, but in conveying neither in depth it's hard to believe both are really there.
That wedding section, though, is the real core of the book. Away from the clichéd baggage of San Fransisco, Tea's observations of life in Tennessee have an otherworldly realness about them. There is real empathy for Iris's hapless mother and skate-punk friends, and the chapter's end finds humanity in the plight of a car-struck dog. Valencia certainly proves that Tea's a self-aware dyke comfortable in her rebellious milieu, but only hints at the intriguing possibility of a more sophisticated lesbian writer, one who can examine what she finds.
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2000 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000