Monday, 21 February 2011

Tales from a favourite city

Not long before I moved to England and started at the University of Warwick, I spent about a week in San Francisco. It was at the end of a spell working in Los Angeles, and I was taken there (and back!) by one of my best friends. As my experience of Californian cities up to that point was largely the sprawling mess that is LA, I had a great time (though I will always love LA). Nestled around the Bay, SF was much more clearly a city to my mind, with a well-defined centre, and an easy-going ambience that largely eluded its southerly sister. Having enjoyed my visit so much, and facing down the barrel of a dismal English winter, I was overjoyed when a new drama set in SF started on TV. As well as reminding me of somewhere dear to my heart, Tales of the City pleasingly warmed the cockles of my liberal heart, with its humane stories of (usually) nice people who just so happened to be diverse in the sexual preferences department.

So, flash forward to the present day, I was rather pleased to pull Armistead Maupin's latest installment in his long-running series out of my Christmas stocking. But would Mary Ann in Autumn be able to stand up to the rose-tinted nostalgia I have for the now-distant TV series?

Set shortly after the 2008 Presidential Election, the novel is structured into four strands that follow the characters of Mary Ann, the straight heroine of the original novel and TV series; Ben, the husband of Mary Ann's old friend (and fellow TotC alumnus) Mouse; Jake, an employee of Mouse and housemate of TotC's now-elderly Mrs. Madrigal, who is preparing to be transgendered to a man; and Shawna, Mary Ann's long-abandoned step-daughter, now a sex-blogger living in San Francisco.

Fleeing her disintegrating marriage, Mary Ann has returned to San Francisco to visit Mouse, her oldest friend, to whom she reveals a recent diagnosis of uterine cancer. Rallying to her aid, Mouse fixes her up with a local lesbian surgeon, while Ben acquaints her with facebook. Unexpectedly taking a shine to it, Mary Ann is pleased to encounter both old friends and fans of her east coast TV work. However, one fan, Fogbound One, appears to know secrets from her past that she had long buried. Distracted by Mouse and Ben, and by her treatment, Mary Ann ignores this interloper, but his interest in her provokes some climactic revelations.

In parallel, Ben is gradually adjusting to married life with Mouse, against the backdrop of California's striking down of gay marriage. Though initially jealous of the close relationship between Mouse and Mary Ann, he gradually warms to her and her dramatics. His regular outings with his dog also introduce him to an old loner, Cliff, with whom he gradually forges a bond, but whose personal tragedies trigger a rapid distancing by Ben.

Meanwhile, Jake is awaiting the completion of his gender-reassignment surgery, and has begun living as a man. Meeting Jonah, an attractive Mormon missionary in town to support Prop. 8, Jake finds his interest piqued even as he is repelled by Jonah's religious homophobia. But despite this faith, the interest is not one way, and Jonah find himself attracted to Jake, though he remains deeply conflicted about his nature.

Also not long back in San Francisco, Shawna is casting around for material for her blog, and debating whether she should use her own experiences with her performance artist boyfriend, Otto. Accidentally crossing paths with a homeless woman, Shawna is intrigued by her grim humour but hopeless situation. Determined to find out more about her life, Shawna co-opts the assistance of Otto and tracks the woman, Leia, to a destitute and dangerous part of town. But Leia's lifestyle has fatally wounded her and Shawna finds herself watching on in the last chapter of the homeless woman's life. Still curious about how Leia's life turned this way, she investigates with what little information Leia was able to pass on before dying. This turns up an estranged husband and, ultimately, a hidden past that connects back to Mary Ann.

It's an interesting novel to rate, this one. I certainly enjoyed it, though largely because it was a like meeting up with an old friend. A lot of time has elapsed since the events of TofC, and the overlapping characters have been pretty busy. Mary Ann, for instance, seems to have had a number of marriages, though all child-less, as well as a career on television. So the novel served, to me at least, as a pleasurable catch-up for the events of the intervening 6 novels. I actually quite enjoyed hearing about what Mary Ann and Mouse had been doing, especially in such a condensed form.

In fact, that the novel includes so much history almost suggests that Maupin intends the novel to appeal to first-time visitors to Barbary Lane (or to delinquent visitors like myself who've been out of contact for decades). However, to anyone who's never seen the TV series, or who has never read any of the other novels, this book is liable to be an extremely dull read. Or possibly even an infuriating one, especially when the novel's climax stretches back to the events of the first novel. For me, this wasn't a problem at all, since my experience of the series is just that first book (and then only the TV version). But new readers are not likely to appreciate snatching only brief mentions of characters and events that they know nothing about but which are necessary to fully enjoy the novel.

There's also no escaping the fact that the novel is a pretty feather-light read. Though it has its dark moments, it's essentially a series of rather comfortable, and sometimes comforting, tales about old friends, juggling relationships and, well, changing gender. Which, as I've said already, I enjoyed. But it isn't anywhere near as ground-breaking as Maupin's first visit to Barbary Lane, which opened a window into the gay scene for those outside it (at least, it did for me). Of course, I don't suppose that it's meant to be, but the cultural significance of the first book does cast something of a long shadow.

Still, if nothing else, it's provided a spur to look back to the earlier book. I don't think I'm done with Mary Ann just yet.

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