Thursday, June 16, 2011

Tales of the City

After reading the first book of Armistead Maupin’s famous ‘Tales of the City’ series, it’s not hard to figure out where Candace Bushnell found her inspirations to write ‘Sex and the City.’

But make no mistake, Maupin’s tales are not anything like ‘Sex...’ Carrie Bradshaw would be ill at east among the ‘Tales...’ characters, with their witticism and forthrightness, and with their willingness to experiment...

A frank, open-hearted attitude to sex in its myriad forms may be the bottomline of both the fictional universes, but everything else is different, the time, the place and the sociological history.

While ‘Sex...’ is a celebration of capitalism at its best, ‘Tales...’ leans towards socialism, towards equality, with an inherent understanding for the ‘flower power’ idealism. So, unlike the New York of high rises and designer dresses, parties and beautiful people, Maupin’s San Francisco, a few years before the AIDS epidemic, focuses on a group of middle class people, their hopes and aspirations and their journey to find love. Unlike the upper-class, heterosexual (okay, there are a few gay characters, but they stand in the fringes and serve at best as a plot device), capitalist world of ‘Sex...’, Maupin explores the alternative lifestyles and the underground culture of San Francisco in the 1970s.

The ‘Tales...’ begins with Mary Ann Singleton, girl from Ohio who comes for a vacation to San Francisco and decides to stay back. She takes up a job as a secretary in an advertising firm, and rents a flat. In the process, he meets a series of characters, who change her life and the lives of each others.

In short, ‘Tales...’ reads like a picaresque novel, which is not a bad idea, especially when the episodes are peppered with witty dialogues and silly misadventures. There aren’t much of a plot and story in the book, as there are series of human comedy, all played out with open-hearted seriousness.

The best of the book is the author’s love and patience for his characters; Maupin loves them, even the despicable ones, like Norman Neal Williams, who may or may not be a phedophile. About the autobiographical nature of the characters, Maupin once said: “I’ve always been all of the characters in one way or another...”

There are two things that stands out. First the chance meetings. The characters meet each other at random, at unlikely of places, and they instantly form a bond. Second, their speeches. All the characters speak in the same way. In the long run, the book sounds like a solo act by Armistead Maupin, who plays all the roles in his own, charming way.

Is an author’s sexual orientation in any way reflects on the characters he create? May be, may be not. But, in ‘Tales...’, when Maupin, an open gay man writers about San Francisco in the heydays of gay liberation, the queer sub-culture in the city gets a typical treatment. Unlike ‘Sex...’, especially the HBO series, also created by a gay man, which exoticises the alternative sexual orientation, Maupin places it in the midst of everything, and it works beautifully. While all his characters sound and behaves more or less the same way, it’s the character of Michael Tolliver that stand out. He is the heart of the book, and an interesting heart. (Maupin would later writer a full-fledged novel on the character — ‘Michael Tolliver lives’.)

The Series
Tales of the City (1978)
More Tales of the City (1980)
Further Tales of the City (1982)
Babycakes (1984)
Significant Others (1987)
Sure of You (1989)
Michael Tolliver Lives (2007)
Mary Ann in Autumn (2010)

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