Thursday, February 8, 2018

Gay Book Club: Tales of the City

Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City is the Great Gay Epic.1

1FYI, Angels in America is the Great Gay Play. The Great Gay Novel is as yet undetermined, like the Great American Novel. Obviously all Great Musicals are gay.

Maupin grew up in North Carolina, then moved to San Francisco after serving in Vietnam and flunking out of law school. He was aspiring writer, so he found a series of McJobs in the city while working on his fiction and exploring his previously-repressed sexuality. San Francisco was still an idyllic 1970’s gay mecca. Maupin lived on quaint pedestrian-only Macondray Lane – the fictional Barbary Lane in Tales.

Tales actually started out as the opposite of an Epic. Its first incarnation was an ephemeral serial feature published in the San Francisco edition of Marin County’s weekly suburban paper. When the city edition folded just a few weeks later, Tales might have disappeared into oblivion. Fortunately, a couple of years later Maupin was hired by the venerable San Francisco Chronicle to write a daily fictional series about life in the city. He published eight hundred cliff-hanging words, five days a week. Each fleeting episode featured quirky characters, with an ongoing narrative that Maupin promised his editor could potentially continue “forever.”

The Chronicle column began in 1976. Maupin published the first book in 1978. Versions of the first five novels were originally serialized in the newspaper. The sixth volume, Sure of You, came out in 1989. This was the first book Maupin wrote for publication as a novel. Sure of You purported to wrap up the story of 28 Barbary Lane and its denizens. Nevertheless, Maupin returned to the characters two decades later, publishing three additional novels in 2007, 2010, and 2014. No one believes Maupin’s current claim that The Days of Anna Madrigal is his last Tale. 

Maupin's Tales of the City are Dickensian in their collective scope, filled with vivid characters and convoluted plotting. Like Charles Dickens’ Victorian novels, Tales also reflect their serialized origin, even when they’ve been sewn together and published as novels. Good writing is about finding and expressing the truth. As someone who uses a fragmentary blog to practice his own writing craft, I respect Maupin’s accomplishment with Tales. Unlike Maupin’s column in the San Francisco Chronicle, the magic of the internet lets me go back and edit things without a trace. Nevertheless, publishing in real time tends to expose untruths and writerly cheating. You must learn how to sustain an artistic vision, while letting the characters, stories, and words breathe lives of their own.

In addition to Tales of the City’s non-Epic origin, Maupin’s tales also started out non-Gay. Even in 1970s San Francisco, the Chronicle’s publishers were nervous about exposing ordinary readers to alternative lifestyles. So the stories focused on the straight characters, starting with fish-out-of-water Mary Ann Singleton. Freshly arrived from Cleveland, Mary Ann rents an apartment on Barbary Lane from mysterious hippie landlady Anna Madrigal. Other tenants include bohemian Mona Ramsey2 and lothario ex-lawyer Brian Hawkins. Soon Mona’s gay BFF Michael Tolliver moves back in with her, after Michael’s latest boyfriend dumps him.

2"Mona's Law" is the subject of a separate blog post.

Maupin describes being summoned to the office of the Chronicle’s managing editor, who sheepishly showed him a wall chart with two columns, labeled “Heterosexual” and “Homosexual.” Each time Maupin introduced a new Tales character, the editor would write the new name in one column or the other. The newspaper’s goal was to limit the “Homosexual” list to one third of the Tales’ total population.

Maupin responded by writing an episode where alcoholic society matron Frannie Halcyon awakes to find her beloved dog Faust humping her leg. The next time Maupin ran into the managing editor, he pointed out Faust belonged in the Heterosexual column. The editor’s chart disappeared.

Over time, the novels’ center of gravity moved from Mary Ann to Michael and his LGBT friends. Maupin writes about what he calls “logical families,” the close social networks we find and create in our lives – particularly LGBT people and other folks who may be alienated from their biological families and communities of origin.

Despite its diverse cast, I would describe Tales as a “Gay” epic, not an LGBT one. Maupin writes from the perspective of his own somewhat ghettoized generation and experience. Although he can write sensitively about women, his lesbians are seldom as well drawn as his gays. Readers will be disappointed to find their favorite lesbian characters fade from the story over time.

On the other hand, Tales’ non-Gay origin helped Maupin become a pioneer in transgender inclusion. When Maupin told his first editor the mysterious Mrs. Madrigal’s secret is that she used to be a man, the editor was aghast. So Maupin took his time introducing Anna Madrigal, with her Winnemucca brothel upbringing, generous disposition, World War II service, communal pot plants, and mother-hen landlady sensibilities. A year later, when the Chronicle’s bourgeois readers discovered Anna was born Andy, they already loved her.

In his recent memoir Logical Family, Maupin describes Mrs. Madrigal as his “proudest achievement.” Together with Olympia Dukakis’ charismatic portrayal in the television productions of Tales, Maupin’s tales of trans icon Anna Madrigal are a remarkable contribution to literature and culture.

Tales’ original format was newspaper serialization, not book publishing. Tales’ original literary genre was hardly an Epic, and much more of a Romance.

Not in the modern Harlequin “romance novel” sense, although Tales includes a lot of old-fashioned courting and new-fashioned hooking up. Rather, “romance” was a serious literary genre that thrived for centuries beginning in the middle ages, before realistic fiction and the modern novel achieved world domination. Romances were known for fantastical plots, implausible coincidences, and chivalrous themes. Shakespeare’s problematic later plays The Tempest and Winter’s Tale are often referred to as romances rather than as comedies. Nowadays when a novelist strays into romance territory we call it “magical realism.”

In Tales of the City, character meets plot in the land of wild coincidences, also known as San Francisco.3

3As Oscar Wilde wrote, “It's an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco.”

[Obligatory mild spoiler alert]

Of course the handsome gentleman Mrs. Madrigal meets in the park is Mary Ann’s boss Edgar Halcyon. Whose odious son-in-law hooks up on the down-low with Michael’s boyfriend Dr. Jon. Who is also DeDe Halcyon’s gynecologist. And Mona happens to sit on a bus to Nevada next to her own long-lost grandmother. Meanwhile, everyone keeps running into everyone else’s exes in bars. Or returning from the dead, or having amnesia, or meeting cute….

Last year, when I woke from the fog of mental illness and the numbness that is our body’s response to trauma, twenty years of writer’s block finally began to erode. I recall a particular epiphany over coffee with a former colleague. I had been regaling her with preposterously tragicomic tales from my recent life, when she responded, “You should write a book!”

That’s when I realized most of my experiences are too implausible to pass off in a Romance, assuming the genre came back into vogue. Obviously I could never use them as the basis for serious contemporary fiction. Instead, I might as well just tell the truth.

Time and circumstances made Tales of the City into an epic. Epics “narrate the deeds and adventures of heroic or legendary figures or the history of a nation.” Examples include the llliad, the Aeniad, Gilgamesh, Beowulf, La Chanson de Roland, and Das Niebelunglied. Epics use the story of individual heroes to explore universal themes in the context of a specific group’s history.

Even in its serialized beginnings, Tales addressed important aspects of gay experience. Most queer folk are born into inherently alien societies and clans. Eventually we must find our own tribe. Maupin is particularly interested in the quest for “logical families,” as well as their evolution over time. We are social animals, complexly connected by networks such as gay choruses, Facebook, and The L Word’s famous chart of lesbian intersections. Tales weaves a gorgeous tapestry, then chronicles how individual threads twist and fray over time.

Like many other touchstones of gay literature, Tales is also about coming out of the closet. Indeed, one of the most powerful coming out narratives in gay lit is “Michael’s Letter to Mama.” After learning his Florida orange-growing parents have become involved in Anita Bryant’s anti-gay “Save the Children” campaign, Michael finally tells the truth about himself in this letter to his mother. It originally appeared in the Chronicle as an episode of Tales, and is reprinted in the book and in Maupin’s memoir.

Almost twenty years ago, Seattle Men’s Chorus commissioned a musical setting of Michael’s Letter to Mama. (There’s an excellent version in this YouTube video performed by the combined Portland and Philadelphia Gay Men’s Choruses.) I still cannot sing or hear the song without weeping.

Ultimately Tales of the City’s epic scope comes from the characters’ and readers’ exposure to the impact of AIDS in real time. The first three volumes innocently portrayed San Francisco as a gay Eden – quirky Adams and Steves finding each other in a licentious yet hopeful post-Stonewall paradise. Now it’s impossible to read about the same characters’ twentysomething adventures without feeling the chill of a dramatic irony Maupin never intended or foresaw. Indeed, the implausible plot devices underscore the tragic fall. For example, Michael dictates his Letter to Mama from a hospital bed because – in soap opera fashion – a mysterious infection left him paralyzed. Of course, as you would expect in a lighthearted Romance, his paralysis disappeared within a few pages. That’s not what happens in an epic.    

The fourth volume of Tales picks up in 1983, after a couple of years’ gap in the story. (Commencing the narrative in medias res is one of the epic's classic literary devices.) Michael is on his way home from volunteering at the AIDS crisis line, during an era when there wasn’t much to offer distraught callers beyond thoughts and prayers. We learn beloved characters have already died, without the opportunity to process our grief. As the Tales continue to unfold over the next three decades, readers observe the same wrenching gay experiences we were all living through.

An epic records how a particular group of people were tested by plagues and war. I am twenty years younger than Armistead Maupin – arriving too late for the party, but in time to become a warrior and witness to subsequent history. As Churchill told besieged Brits in 1940 about their own peril and heroism, if gay culture endures for a thousand years, men and women will still say this was our finest hour.

Tales' epic impact on gay culture is amplified by the excellent television miniseries versions of the first three volumes. The shows perfectly capture the look and feel of the 70s, starting with Mary Ann dragging the same Samsonite luggage my mother got as a graduation present. The scripts were adapted by Richard Kramer; he is also responsible for the pioneering gay episodes of thirtysomething. And the casting is impeccable, particularly Laura Linney as Mary Ann Singleton and Olympia Dukakis as Anna Madrigal.

As I edited this blog post, I learned that after a twenty-year hiatus, the subsequent Tales – like every other marketable artifact of Western culture – are currently in development for a 10-part series on Netflix. Linney and Dukakis are lined up to reprise their roles.

A group of us from Vancouver Men’s Chorus recently gathered for Gay Book Club. (Our host’s 1970s era buffet is pictured above.) We chatted about Tales of the City, then watched the first episode of the miniseries. Next month we’re reading Call Me By Your Name, the novel that inspired the ravishing new film.

I was the oldest of the group, and the only one who’d already read all of Maupin’s books as well as seeing the three television adaptations. Our host is in his 40s, while the rest of the chorines are in their 20s and 30s. They were not around to see how gay life got Much Worse after Tales first appeared in 1976. And then, eventually, It Got Better.

As we discussed gay life and letters over the last four decades, I felt like a dinosaur. A Big Gay Dinosaur.

Another of my favorite cultural artifacts from the same period as Tales of the City is the soapy 1977 movie The Turning Point. Anne Bancroft’s Emma and Shirley MacLaine’s Deedee were ballet dancers, best friends, and youthful rivals. Deedee got pregnant, married, and moved to Oklahoma to raise a family. Emma stayed in New York for a distinguished dance career. Years later, Deedee’s daughter / Emma’s goddaughter Emilia joins Emma’s ballet company in New York. Emilia dances with (and sleeps with) a young Mikael Baryshnikov. The film is about art, family, friendship, sacrifices, chance, and choices.   

After an entertaining cat fight in the plaza at Lincoln Center, Emma and Deedee reconcile. Emilia replaces the aging Emma in a new ballet, and triumphs in her New York debut. The movie ends with the two old friends alone together afterwards.

DEEDEE:          Her life is just beginning.

EMMA:             It’s not a very long one, Deedee.

DEEDEE:          I know. Well, as long as it gives her what she wants.

EMMA:             It will. It will.

DEEDEE:          Oh, Emma. If only she knew everything we know.

EMMA:             It wouldn’t matter a damn.

Even when you think you know how everything ends, life is epic. And gay. And great.

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