review : mermaid in chelsea creek

ON MICHELLE TEA.

Part I– Where I Get Sad.

I think I first heard of Michelle Tea via Becca Rosenthal – probably her Twitter, or her blog. We only ever had a few conversations, she and I – I think at least two of them revolved around my changing hair colour, too – but even that was enough to lodge her permanently in mind, especially when she was a fixture in the lives of some of my friends. Becca was the arbiter of hip – not my words, possibly her own, possibly someone else’s – so I felt that I was doing something right when the first time I met her wound up being at a St Vincent show. To my eighteen year old self, she was everything I wanted to be, clove cigarettes on a Brooklyn stoop and a bandana around her boot.

But Becca’s story ended before it should have – when she died at 27, in late 2012. Friends who loved her dearly were in shock, and I, for whom she was just a brief flash in my strange brief NYC life, felt like I had no right to mourn, not really. But every loss is tragic, and it did leave me a little numb.

Jessica Allyn, my beautiful friend who counted Becca as one of her closest friends, wrote a song for her after her death, and subsequently donated all of her musical takings for a month to Sister Spit. Michelle Tea pops up again.

Part II – Where I Get A Bit Proud.

A momentary internal monologue.

Hey, she’s a contributor on xoJane.com too! And we both write on health-related topics! Sure, she has an ongoing series (‘Getting Pregnant With Michelle Tea’) and I have one piece on my munted guts, but still! We both have author pages, we’re totally alike in some nonsensical way!

ON THE BOOK.

Part III – Discovery & Aesthetics

Shelving books, as one does at a bookstore, can prove most fruitful. I had heard of Mermaid in Chelsea Creek in passing, as a theoretical future release, at some point last year, and neglected to follow it up. But last week, among other treasures in a stack of new children’s and young adult books destined for the shelves, I picked up a couple of beautiful hardbacks (fairly unusual, for novels distributed in the Australasia reason) and examined them closely.

mermaid in chelsea creek

It was Michelle Tea’s book, in all its glory – and I had completely forgotten about it. But now, here it was – exquisite and present and mine for the reading. I took it home, and opened it up. I had a momentary pang of disappointment – stark white paper is never my favourite, I prefer the more ‘standard’ creamy beigey colour. I think it’s a sort of perceived accessibility of white paper – like pages could have been churned through on a home printer, rather than in some mysterious book bindery. In reality, it’s a ridiculous differentiation to make, but so be it. I like the allure of tradition.

But the cover made up for my interior colour misgivings.

Part IV – First Impressions

My initial feeling was one of familiarity. It became clear very quickly that the book felt, to me, at least, like a more gritty or grungey version of Francesca Lia Block’s writing – the same urban fantasy, but with less sparkle. And by sparkle, I mean literal sparkle, of course, as anyone who has read FLB would realise – but in Tea’s work, the glitz and glam of bizarro Los Angeles is replaced by the down-and-out streets of Chelsea, Massachusetts. The extensive tracts of description are there, though, and elements of fairy tale escapism.

I have a fondness for FLB’s Weetzie Bat books, so all of this was a good sign. I went on eagerly.

Part V – In Progress, And A Screeching Halt

I had some serious excitement when I found, not too far into the book, not one but TWO interrobangs. INTERROBANGS! I have a fascination with unusual punctuation, and I’ve never actually seen one used in real life. If you aren’t familiar with the term, an interrobang is a combined exclamation mark and question mark – like this ‽. So unusual, and so exciting.

So I continued muddling along happily, typographically content for a brief time. And then, the mistakes started popping up in my vision. It started with “the birds’ stomach”, and my fledgling editor alarm bells went off. The pigeons don’t share a stomach, yo. Unfortunately, it was one of many issues that weren’t picked up anywhere along the editing/typesetting/proofreading process. Plurals where there shouldn’t have been, inconsistencies with the italicising of foreign language words, even misspelling “poison” as “poison” at one point. Not good form. A couple of errors I could perhaps let slip, but there was a significant enough number that they really did jump out enough to pull me out of the story on several occasions.

Part VI – The Good Stuff

But proofreading issues aside, there was much good to be said about the book. Michelle Tea’s writing is lyrical and lovely, and her memoirs are certainly on my to-do list. In a world where the trends are for post-apocalyptic worlds and hospital wards, a story set in the mean streets of the greater Boston area (I have to admit, until I read the afterword, I assumed that the city of Chelsea was invented for the story – turns out it’s completely real) was refreshing, in many ways. It was also rather fascinating reading about a mythology I previously knew nothing about – the mermaids and witches of Polish tradition – and to learn a few new words too, even if I couldn’t pronounce them or spell them to save my life.

Part VII – The Not So Great Stuff

I’ve already gone over the editorial issues – and they were the thing that really burned in my brain – but at the same time, I wasn’t 100% sold on the story as a whole. Some of the characters were painted as far too black or white, rather than any kind of in-between in terms of motives and actions. Aren’t we all generally more interested in people who fall somewhat between the gaps of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ these days, rather than people who are purely one of the other? Maybe I’ve just read too much George R.R. Martin. The plot was a bit loopy as well – not in concept, I’m all for a bit of fantastical madness – but it just seemed like it could have unfolded better – I may need to re-read in order to establish exactly why I feel that way, but judging from other reviews on Goodreads, I wasn’t alone in my feeling.

Part VIII – Conclusion?

It’s beautiful on the surface – gorgeous cover, gorgeous writing – but at a deeper level, with closer inspection, it leaves a little to be desired. If McSweeney’s run a more thorough check before they go to paperback, and the proofreading issues are fixed, I would bump my current 3/5 to a 4/5. And who knows – there is a sequel in the works, perhaps the pacing will work better across the two books. Regardless of my mixed feelings, I will be picking it up, and I would still recommend people who like the sound of the book to give it a go. Take a chance – and may your eyes not be as critical as mine.

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