Saturday, 13 November 2010

Review of Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin

‘Christ, Mary Ann! No wonder you’re depressed. You sit around all day expecting life to be one great big Hallmark card’.

I was a pretentious teenager. I’m not proud of it. Looking back, I wish I’d spent more time sitting in a park, swilling Frosty Jack’s from its plastic bottle and smoking what I thought to be Marijuana, but what was more likely to be dried Oregano taken from one of my friends’ kitchens- clearly, I was middle class as well as pretentious. But I didn’t.

Instead, I sat in Starbucks with a cappuccino, my head stuck in a copy of Le Monde or a yellowing school-owned edition of Candide, wishing I were sitting in Paris on the Rue Soufflot sipping an overpriced espresso.

Fast forward three(ish) years and I was on the Rue Soufflot. I wasn’t sipping an espresso, but rather a glass- or five- of wine (I don’t know which kind, I always asked for le moins cher- classy, eh?) and I wasn’t reading. At all. In fact, I’ve noticed that when something upsets me- usually relationships, university or my weight- I become unable to concentrate on a book and revert to languishing in Madame Bovary-esque anguish.

It just so happens- because it never rains but it pours- that when I was in Paris I was concerned about relationships, university and weight all at the same time, and I found reading impossible; thus spoiling my adolescent fantasies of sitting in a café in France, in a pose reminiscent of Gainsbourg, with a decrepit copy of Le chef-d’œuvre inconnu and a near-empty packet of Gauloises.

After returning to the UK, and after resolving Paris-induced crises- and a few self-inflicted dramas- I decided it was time to put an end to my literary exile. Nothing makes me want to curl up in bed with a book more than a raging hangover. So, after a particularly unenjoyable- yet wine-filled- party, I dragged my booze-sodden self to Waterstone’s in search for some literary relief. Thanks to some in-store advertising, I came across Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin.  

In this episodic novel, first published in 1978, Maupin introduces his now famous anti-heroine Mary Ann Singleton, a secretary from Cleveland who takes the plunge and decides to change her life. In almost picaresque fashion, the loveably naïve protagonist must use her wits to deal with the challenges thrown at her, from suicidal acquaintances to promiscuous co-workers, all of whom she encounters in her new home, San Francisco, a town where ‘The Love that Dare Not Speak Its Name almost never shuts up’.

Maupin’s depiction of San Francisco proves to be one of the most interesting aspects of the novel. When discussing the city, one of the characters states, ‘Nobody’s from here’, which aptly describes how Maupin viewed San Francisco in the 1970s: it was a melting pot of characters that, like Mary Ann, had moved there in search of an alternative lifestyle. And the appeal of the city is evident. This is San Francisco post-sexual revolution, post-Stonewall and pre-AIDs, where the Zeitgeist encourages sexual experimentation, drug use and liberation from the traditional restraints of society. However, Maupin also adds a twist to the tale by portraying the ambivalence of the city. On the one hand, this creates tension in the novel, as the reader wonders whether Mary Ann will remain in San Francisco, where she feels there’s ‘no stability’, or return to Cleveland. On the other hand, Maupin is implying that while liberation from society may bring benefits, it may also result in isolation.    

The same descriptive talents used in establishing a sense of place are employed to create a group of endearing and memorable characters. Much like the novels of Alexander McCall Smith and Barbara Pym, it is not the plot, but rather the characters that drive the novel. While at first glance this motley band is comprised of drunks, Lotharios and drug addicts, Maupin allows the reader to see past such attributes and concentrate on the people behind the actions, who often turn out to be vulnerable, troubled or down on their luck. This vulnerability is accentuated by Maupin’s use of an omniscient third person narrator, which often results in the reader having greater knowledge of events than the characters themselves. This device ensures the reader feels pathos the whole way through the novel, even for characters whose actions are less than honourable. It also creates dramatic irony, making the novel light and humorous. The characters are flawed, and that’s why it is easy to relate to them. The situations in which they find themselves, from DeDe’s unexpected pregnancy, the return of Mona’s lover and the arrival of Michael’s parents, serve to remind us of the unpredictable nature of life and the difficulties that arise from this.     

Writing about dealing with depression, Rana Kabbani writes that she finds ‘unbelievable solace in [...] books’. Maupin’s Tales of the City reminded me how much books can heal. This humorous, touching and relatable story teaches us not to be ashamed of our foibles. It also warns us of the unexpected difficulties that may arise in life, but leaves us safe in the knowledge that no matter how bad our day has been, it can always be solved with a Crème de Menthe (never tried it, but it sounds vile, no?). The next time I find myself concerned about relationships, university or weight- probably tomorrow, this is me we’re talking about- I’d happily delve into another of Maupin’s novels rather than repining à la Esther Greenwood.

And, if that doesn’t want to make you read this novel, then there are also nuns on roller-skates.  Oh, and the nuns, they are men.