One Lump or Two?

Tea for two, and a rave review.

Tea, the beverage, appears only sporadically in Tea, the novel, and as a metaphor it remains oddly obscure; it seems meant to symbolize the psychological troubles of Isabel's mother, who commits suicide when Isabel is a little girl in the '60s. Her mother drinks tea (though at the book's end it's intimated that it was actually alcohol) in the first section, entitled "Morning" (the What Mother Did to Me section, sort of a calmer, East Coast The Liar's Club or Bastard Out of Carolina). A jug of sun tea lurks in the background in the middle segment, "Afternoon," as Isabel and her pretty blonde friend tan themselves, smoke pot and cigarettes, and listen to Joni Mitchell (the My Coming of Age in the '70s section, reminiscent of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital or Love Invents Us). And older Isabel switches to tea because the coffee at her job at a nonprofit in New York is terrible (the Post-Collegiate Search for Romantic and Vocational Self in the East Village section, here ominously titled "Evening"). These cameos by tea the beverage command attention, but then the tea just sits there—forced, misbegotten, signifying little. Tea

by Stacey D'Erasmo (Algonquin Books, $21.95) The success of the What Mother Did to Me genre is perhaps due to a sort of literary manipulation of our basest horror (and, queasily, fascination)—the mistreating of Child by Parent. A world in which you can't count on Mommy is fear incarnate (and leads to an adult life as, at best, a writer), and when well portrayed achieves a poetry of isolation and terror that is scared-of-the-basement, pit-of-the-stomach primal. Here, D'Erasmo's "Morning" is stunning. She unerringly recalls the curious logic, the otherworldly scale, of childhood. The details and voice of Isabel's cosmos are perfect: her dread watchfulness of her depressed mother, the names of the games she and her friend play under the ping-pong table, her nascent panic attacks. "Afternoon," though with more narrative pull as Isabel grows apart from her teenage friends and gets involved with an alternative theater group, doesn't approach the force or beauty of "Morning." Isabel's mother's suicide (and tea, the beverage) is hardly mentioned, and the book drifts themelessly. Despite occasional lovely description (Isabel's keen comparison of herself and her friend is both typically teenage and lyrical), her coming-of-age becomes rote, even as she realizes she's bisexual. Similarly, the jump to Isabel at 22 ("Evening"), living in New York with her lover Thea and their plan to make an experimental movie, shifts even further from the beginning of the book. A pat, collegiate feminist idealism is rendered seemingly, impossibly, without irony ("They shared a deep sense of ethics about women and equipment"), and an unfortunate descent into overwriting and touchy-feely dialogue occurs ("Thea said somberly, 'I have such fierce inner contradictions I almost get ripped apart by them sometimes'"). Tea the beverage stays mostly on hiatus until the end, when it's served up again for a ringing conclusion; similarly, Isabel's mother provides little but an obvious, therapy-esque revelation and the explanation for Isabel's panic attacks and emotional breakdown. But the real dearth here is humor. Not every book ought to be funny, but the charm of many books in the genres Tea encompasses is in how their heroines depend on a good laugh. A meditative, vivid look into the oblique workings of a child's mind can stand without humor, but the well-meaning weirdos of the theater troupe, a visit home from New York to find her father and sister have adopted a half-dozen stray dogs, a description of the movie project ("'an experimental film about the goddess Diana that references current geopolitical conditions and the oppression of women throughout history but that also sort of interrogates, you know, filmmaking itself'")—this is funny stuff, people! But the situations remain inert and we, unsure whether we're supposed to, or allowed to, laugh. D'Erasmo shows she can be a terrific writer with her evocation of the precariousness of childhood. But you end up feeling about Tea as you might feel about tea: It sounds good, you want to like it; at the beginning it seems promising, wonderful even; then before you know it you've got a cup of tepid, wrong-color water. Briefly noted The subtitle of this slim volume is somewhat misleading: Montreal-based author Silcott's subject is less the regionally defined dance-music styles (Florida funky breaks, for instance, or Midwestern hardcore) coming from the US and Canada (though they do come up) than the scenes surrounding them. Rather than taking on the whole of North America's rave/club scenes, Silcott shines her laser pointer on a mere handful, concentrating on the early- to mid-'90s origins and heydays in the Midwest, Florida, San Francisco, New York, Toronto, and Montreal, as well as the nationwide gay circuit dances that exist alongside yet separately from the rave scene. Rave America: New School Dancescapes

by Mireille Silcott (ECW Press, $16.95) Silcott is least convincing when she's reiterating well-known facts (like the origins of Detroit techno); skim those parts and you'll find great dirt (Midwest raver legend-turned-Atlanta promoter Tommie Sunshine's detailed tales of drug debauchery). Yet despite these flaws (and the author's occasional lapse into the "I'm gonna tell you about some stuff" school of 'zine writing), Rave America, though hardly definitive, is a crucial stepping stone to a more in-depth understanding of the North American rave scene. MICHAELANGELO MATOS

 
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