At several points during my thoroughly enjoyable read of Michelle Tea's debut novel, Rose of No Man's Land, I was acutely self-conscious of the fact that I was reading a book whose target audience was a full decade younger and of a different gender than myself. Rose's heroine is a confused and cynical 14-year-old who works at Ohmigod! in the mall; abhors cliques of popular, pretty girls; and oversleeps her last day of ninth grade. My awareness of reading such a blatantly "girly" book was always quickly tempered by the truism that it's not what the book is about, but how it's about it.
Tea, the author of Rent Girl—an autobiographical graphic novel about her years as a prostitute—writes sentences that snap, and pop off the page to create a wholly formed, gruesomely real universe between the book covers. I'm not going anywhere near Holden Caulfield with this, but let's just say that she's got the "fucked up world through the eyes of a smart, jaded teen" thing on lock.
Trisha is the aforementioned 14-year-old, trapped in the strip-mall wasteland of Mogsfield, Massachusetts. Her mother's a hypochondriac who watches reality TV nonstop and hasn't left the house in years. Ma's boyfriend, Donnie, is a petty thief with a jones for ramen noodle flavor packets. Trisha's sister aspires only to be the token white-trash girl on The Real World, and cuts hair at a salon that uses zebra-striped wrapping paper as wall décor.
Slightly androgynous Trisha doesn't know whether to rebel against this hopeless wasteland or just crawl back in bed with a beer. She befriends an equally disenfranchised girl named Rose, and we're treated to front-row seats in a day and a half in the life of Trisha, as she and her new friend cross the proverbial river from innocence to experience. Theft, meth use, gashed-up feet, and sloppy lesbianism are all involved.
So while, yes, this is a book about a confused girl who works in the mall, that's like saying that The Old Man and the Sea is about a guy who goes fishing. Good literature's all in the execution, and Michelle Tea has got her gloved hand resting lovingly on the switch to Old Sparky.