Rose of No Man's Land
Michelle Tea’s graphic novel, Rent Girl (illustrated by Laurenn McCubbin), was one of the best things I read in 2005. Tea has gained a well-deserved following largely through the force of this and her other memoirs, including the searing reads-like-fiction Valencia and the more intimate The Chelsea Whistle. Her book of poetry, The Beautiful, collected personal writing from several chapbooks into one gorgeous volume. But until now, she hasn’t done straight-up fiction: the new Rose of No Man’s Land is her first novel.
Though in some ways a departure from her earlier work, Rose finds Tea back at the roots of so much memoir -- the early years of high school -- with a teenage protagonist pushing her way through the last dragging day before she starts to come into her own. School has just let out for the year, and the summer that lays in front of Trisha Driscoll is, for many kids, full of possibilities. But Trisha’s life stands in stark contrast to the cozy-if-angst-y situations of many other fictional fourteen-year-olds. Her world consists of the purposely blank walls of her bedroom, a hypochondriac mother installed on the living room couch, that mother’s loser live-in boyfriend, and a hairdresser sister obsessed with getting on The Real World. She has few of the material and emotional supports that guided Judy Blume’s precocious heroines through adolescence. And rather than gifting Trisha with dramatic intelligence or wit, Tea lets her fend for herself.
Living in the dead-end town of Mogsfield, Massachusetts, Trisha doesn’t know herself any better than the reader does. She’s practically invisible, preferring to wear oversized t-shirts and cut-off sweat pants, but able to pass in hyper-feminine girl drag if she needs to. After someone tells her that a two syllable name makes her sound more memorable than just one, she starts making a conscious effort to call herself “Trisha” instead of “Trish.” She’s aimless, a self-described loner who has finally decided that she wants to find a friend. Over the two days that comprise the story, it’s possible to map the symptoms of the person we can guess she might turn into.
During her single day of employment at the local mall, Trisha meets the seemingly fearless Rose. Outspoken and obnoxious as she is, things are brighter next to Rose, and adventures appear out of nowhere. She’s the kind of girl who finds danger and excitement where before there was just a mall and a mini-golf course. That night, the two girls hitchhike to a beachside town, where they meet a drug dealer and learn the dark secrets of the most popular girl in school. They steal. They get high. They get all breathless and tangled up in each other, but only one of them has any clue what she’s doing. Rose is a catalyst: she makes Trisha brave, bringing her right up to the edge and then retreating. She may be the more immediately magnetic character, but it’s always Trisha that we care about, with her more subtle understandings offset by Rose’s blatant hungering.
As the night unfolds and Trisha falls in love with everything around her, we want to believe that it’s for real, that she’s managed to find things that will stick. But in her fiction, as in her life, Michelle Tea knows a girl can never find salvation on her first try. What Trisha has found instead is a starting point, moments she will remember and point out later, look back on and know, that’s when everything changed. There are lessons in her first night of bright lights and brighter hopes, but she won’t learn them fast enough to keep her safe. That’s okay, because safety is not the point of being this kind of girl.
Rose of No Man's Land by Michelle Tea