Saturday, 19 March 2016

tales of the city

On Wednesday 16 March I finished Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin. Well-written, but - I think unintentionally - depressing, to me at least.

I read it because it was on one of my lists - perhaps Waterstone's 100 Best Books of the 20th Century that they devised a few years before the century was up (and which, being reader-poll-generated, was overrepresented by books of the previous five to ten years).

I knew about the book, so I had a good (and, it turned out, pretty accurate) idea of what I was in for - a soap opera of people's (predominantly gay) love/sex lives in San Francisco in the 1970s, which started life as a newspaper column.

As with other books which have started life as a newspaper columns/serials, it has an episodic structure which keeps you reading as you alternate between different characters stories (in short chapters, being a modern column rather than Victorian serial), with progress of plot in every page or two, which is part of what gives it that soap opera feel. It was well written in that kind of way.

It did lean heavily on what is often criticised in less critically acclaimed novels, the delineation of character by brand name, whether it's clothes, food, shops, homeware, books, etc. There is the attraction of recognition for readers, if they feel something is being written about or for people just like them, seeing their lives, or some aspect of it, represented in popular culture. And I don't know enough about 1970s literature or American culture in general to know whether perhaps this book - and those which followed it - was seen as doing something which hadn't been done before in terms of writing about gay culture for both the gay community and the mainstream.

I found it quite a depressing book, especially because although some of the plot details may or may not be far-fetched, I believe the generalities to be realistic, and it represents a way of life so empty and meaningless, so driven by the quest for casual sex, overriding the quest for love even when the latter is there. Books, especially novels, are a great way to get an insight into all kinds of aspects of life and society beyond one's own experience (although you do have to be wise in what you expose yourself to). And that's also a point in favour of working through lists like the Waterstone's one, reading things that one might not naturally have chosen (although, again, you have to be wise, and there are things you know you will hate and are inexplicable, like the baffling popularity of the horrible 'misery memoir' genre). But I don't feel like I learned anything new from this book, except confirming what I thought I knew already (although that's a good thing, though, because one could easily be mistaken).

Reading this book, published in 1978, from this point in history, of course, one knows that Aids is coming, and that that's going to have a massive impact on that culture (at least part of it, at least for a time), and I know that that is covered in subsequent volumes in the series as history unfolds. But I don't really want to read any more of them, and I don't expect I will. (Many years ago I read Randy Shilts' And The Band Played On, which was excellent.)

Definitive line: 'God, this is dreary!' - while taking coke in the gents at the opera. Referring to the opera, but perhaps equally to the drug taking and the whole life.

First line: Mary Ann Singleton was twenty-five years old when she saw San Francisco for the first time.
Last line: 'Have fun,' she smiled. 'It's Columbian.'
Dedication: For my mother and father / and my family at The Duck House
Epigraph: It's an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco. - Oscar Wilde

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