You hear about “gritty realism” (most memorably, I heard about it from a giant-egoed undergrad professor who was touting his own story collection), and usually it means that someone in the book is on drugs or gets molested. These things do happen in Michelle Tea’s uber-honest memoirs and fiction, which are fraught with scenes of giddy rebellion, but I relish the more literal grit.
Her characters are not clean, and sometimes it makes them feel small, as when Trisha, the 14-year-old narrator of Rose, marvels at her beauty-student older sister’s ability to sculpt hair into stiff, sleek towers of femininity. Sometimes it makes them feel good, as when Trisha marvels at her new semi-gothy friend’s ability to make a wire bracelet that has shed most of its beads look like a bad-ass accessory. Trisha watches it all in her beloved uniform of sweatpants and flip-flops.
I was one of those little kids who would cry if I got sticky, and my OCD self still craves the clean and shiny. Even when I aspired to a sort of half-assed punk aesthetic, I always wanted to be a well groomed punk, not the gutter variety. And maybe because my desired level of grooming is so incompatible with my actual level of effort, I admire those who can be dirty, gritty and happy.
Cynthia Kadohata is another author who gets this just right. Her characters are sometimes up to their elbows in chicken blood in a very matter-of-fact way. In In The Heart of the Valley of Love, the main character gets a futuristic skin disease that makes black pearls pop out of her zits and clatter on the floor of her shower. Sort of beautiful and disgusting at the same time.
I didn’t shower on Sunday. I bummed around town all day in a big T-shirt and flip-flops. It was cool.