Tales of the City Review
by Armistead Maupin
Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City doesn’t open the door for you and politely invite you in. The door swings open. You hear ‘there you are, you’re late’ before being yanked down several flights of stairs and thrust into a room full of strangers. Strangers who are all trying to introduce themselves at once.
The story opens with Mary Ann Singleton, a naive 25 year old from Cleveland, who is breaking the news to her parents that she’s not coming back. A fate befallen by many Bay Area visitors, Mary Ann’s fallen in love with San Francisco. Immediately the story is funny and relatable, and the characters so well defined. In only a page and a half you already know who Mary Ann is, what kind of a woman her mother is, and what kind of a life Mary Ann’s left behind. Marvellous. Then, after precisely two pages, you’re onto the next chapter (but lulled into a false sense of security because the next one is about Mary Ann, too).
The reason this book feels like thirty people are trying to speak to you at once is because it’s written like a soap opera with each chapter fixed on a new character, except each chapter is a fleeting one to two pages long. By the time you’ve figured out what’s going on with Mary Ann, you’re whisked away to the other side of San Francisco to hear the woes of bisexual copywriter Mona Ramsey. By the time you’ve figured out what she’s on about you’re in Edgar’s office listening to him berate the scheming Beauchamp (but don’t worry, they teach you how to pronounce his name).
One upside to this is that the book moves quickly and enjoyably, like a book in smoothie format you can sip at until, without realising, your straw starts to make that rattling noise and you realise you’ve finished it. The downside is that sometimes you aren’t sure what’s going on because it’s been a while since you last visited this character, and maybe the tone of voice is a bit similar to who they’re talking to and you have to backtrack to figure out who’s speaking.
Tales of the City is the first in a series of nine novels, the first five originally published as regular instalments in San Francisco newspapers in the 70s. It makes sense to know that before you begin reading it because it helps you to understand why the book is written in short sharp bursts, and also helps to paint a picture of what a masterpiece of its time it really is.
Only in 70s San Fran would you find a cast of characters so absurd but so loveable - and at the same time so horrendously tame because Maupin had to strike a deal with his editors that only one third of the characters would be gay. Famously, one kept a character chart to make sure the queers didn’t outnumber the hets and “undermine the natural order of civilisation.” If you know that, while reading this book you’ll almost be able to picture some bespectacled editor tapping a pen on his clipboard and nudging characters back into their closets.
But the beauty of this book is the boundaries that it pushed. Maupin snuck characters in - what you thought was a hetero was actually two gays in a trench coat. Divine. Even the unfaithful and philandering Beauchamp Day is actually a bisexual, and although you’re not to know for quite some time (thanks to our chap with the tally) the landlady and quasi-mother figure Anna Madrigal is a trans woman.
The thing is, Tales of the City isn’t meant to be great literature. It’s a smoothie, you’re not meant to chew on it. But knowing the role that it played and what it meant to the people who read it, you’ll understand why it’s a smoothie and not a milkshake. It’s good for you, it’s got vegetables in it.
If you want a book that's easy to read, with characters you’d love to be best friends with, as many twists and turns as a telenovela, and a San Francisco setting that could only have been written by a local, you’ll love this. I loved it, and I’m ready to read book number two.
Find Tales of the City at Agnes & Edie today!