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Girl, Uncorrupted

Michelle Tea and Laurenn McCubbin's Rent Girl

Michelle Tea makes me nervous. I've often thought that if we were friends I would be constantly shouting things like, "Be careful! That sounds dangerous! Are you sure that's a good idea?"

That's exactly why I read her books. I can live vicariously as the kind of girl who would become a prostitute just for the hell of it, or deal coke as a quick way to make vacation money, or tattoo little red hearts on each of my knuckles. Michelle Tea's greatest creation is, of course, Michelle Tea, as she appears in books and in book jacket photos: tattooed, hair of ever-changing bright hues, cat's-eye glasses and vintage dresses, a wild girl from a scrappy working-class New England town who loves other women with operatic passion, snorts coke, lives in constant fascinating dramatic upheaval, and generally barrels through life at top speed without a single (admitted) regret or glance backward.

After I get my fix of young punk dyke drama, I can lie down, take a nap, and be glad I don't have to live it.

In her late teens and early twenties, Tea worked as a prostitute for "escort services" in Boston and Tucson. Rent Girl, a collaboration with artist Laurenn McCubbin, is sort of a greatest-hits rundown of her sex work: the most ridiculous customers, friendships with other whores, dealing coke to earn money for a trip to Greece, and a more recent, brief, ill-advised return to the trade.

Don't expect cautionary tales. It's mostly lighthearted and funny, and full of sexy drawings of attractive naked girls. Last Gasp is the ideal publisher for a venture like this, since they traffic in both high-quality graphic literature and high-quality smut, and Rent Girl is a bit of both. Ironically, one audience for this book is bound to be straight men -- come on, there's a drawing of a coke-fueled lesbian three-way in here! -- even though these are exactly the guys she mercilessly mocks throughout.

If you hate comic books, don't worry: Tea's Rent Girl isn't a comic book. If you love comic books, don't worry, it is a comic book, but innovative enough not to frighten you off. Instead of panels with word balloons and sound effects, each page is one large illustration with a couple hundred words of text. McCubbin's fresh, minimal drawings are printed in rich inky black, with touches of only one color -- red. The shades range from girly-pink to cherry-red to bruise-purple and are used sparingly, to great effect. Sometimes it's just one vermillion cocktail dress, or one tiny pink barrette, or one rouged pair of lips. The characters as McCubbin draws them stare boldly out at us, aware of the reader's presence. This is terrifically unnerving in the many scenes where Tea is having sex with a john who is making an embarrassing, ecstatic, private face, while she is clearly uncomfortable, bored and looking right at us, her eyes saying, "Can you believe how ridiculous this is?"

For an autobiographical story about prostitution, Tea's emotional honesty is refreshing. It isn't a hand-wringing tale of a downward spiral into a dark and dangerous world, like former porn star Traci Lords' recent book. And it isn't an I'm-a-whore-and-proud-of-it memoir either, like you'd hear from someone like performance artist Annie Sprinkle, who makes connections between sex work and goddess worship. Whoring is far more mundane here, not evil or sacred, just a way to pay the bills. "I would look into the mirror and think, I Am A Prostitute," Tea writes, "and wait for an appropriate wave of horror and revulsion. I would wait and wait and feel nothing."

The trouble is this: If you're already a member of the Cult of Michelle, Rent Girl might feel recycled and gussied up with striking art. It mostly takes place a decade and a half ago, starting when Tea, now in her mid-thirties, was 19. Since this time in her life has been given such a thorough once-over in four other books, I'm surprised there was anything left to say about it. Tea brings back Steph, her first girlfriend, a damaged and controlling fabulist who also appeared as "Liz" in The Passionate Mistakes And Intricate Corruption of One Girl In America as well as in The Chelsea Whistle, and who appears unnamed in many of the poems in The Beautiful, a recent collection of Tea's early work from Manic D Press. We also get more mentions of Tea's awful peeping tom of a stepfather, who is (rightly) the villain of The Chelsea Whistle and many poems in The Beautiful. Difficult, intense stuff to be sure, but it's already been dealt with.

In places, Tea practically plagiarizes herself. See this line about johns from Rent Girl: "The thing about regulars, the really creepy thing, is that if you see anybody long enough you're having a relationship with them." Now see this line from Valencia, published in 2000: "The guy was a regular. Regulars are weird, I told her. If you see someone on a regular basis it turns into a relationship."

If Michelle Tea is to remain the starring character in her own work, there will come a point when she'll have to write about her more recent adult life as popular writer, journalist, anthology editor and spoken word performer in her thirties with a huge cult following, no longer a crazy troubled kid-a persona she should've shed a long time ago.

If you've never been exposed to Tea's work, Rent Girl is an intense, artful introduction which should be followed up with the far better Chelsea Whistle. If you're already a Tea reader, Rent Girl is worth picking up for the art of Laurenn McCubbin. But the story is nothing new.