Friday, February 27, 2015

Fiction | Shedding Light on the Outlier Crowd

Working on my goal of reading off my "to-read" shelf, I picked up Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, which had been quietly waiting its turn since at least 2009. There's a very good chance that I added it to my shelf back then based mostly on its cover art, because, I must admit, I had no idea what it was actually going to be about.

Apparently, it's quite a famous little book. Tales of the City is the novelization of what was originally serialized as short stories published in the San Francisco Chronicle back in the mid-1970s. Further, Tales of the City is only the first in a series of nine novels that Maupin would later publish, mostly in the 1980s. These stories quickly became pop culture icons for their currency, relevancy, and depiction of lifestyles that were rarely given much light during this era.

The story follows a cast of characters sort of centered around a young woman from Ohio named Mary Ann Singleton, a new resident of the city who visited on vacation and impulsively decided to never leave. The action happens at 28 Barbury Lane, a tenant house where Mary Ann finds an apartment and meets a slew of unique, eccentric individuals that color her life and fill the pages of this novel. There's Mona, coworker and fellow tenant with a hippy side and questionable sexuality; their boss with a secret side, Edward Halcyon; Edward's high-maintenance daughter Edie and her bisexual husband Beauchamp; the hopelessly romantic gay neighbor Michael, known lovably as Mouse; and the incomparable, mysterious landlady herself, Anna Madrigal. Pepper the pages with a few more folks here and there, and you've got a certified ensemble cast, crafted by Maupin to illustrate the diversity and chaos of San Francisco in the late-70s.

It's clear when reading Tales of the City that, stylistically, it has probably set the stage for a great deal of what has since come. Its narrative style, setting, and tone feel incredibly familiar as a consumer of culture in 2015, but I imagine it must've seemed very groundbreaking around the time of its original publication. Maupin writes an honest story of realistic scenarios on topics and characters that would've been very counterculture at the time—and probably rarely represented in the media or literature. Its intent isn't to be monumental literature—rather to reach an outlier audience and tell their story. For many, it's become a beloved classic, often mirroring their own lives and struggles in finding a sense of place and self. To me, it was an entertaining snapshot into a handful of lives, but I didn't have the same deep connection as many; I'm not rushing to devour the rest of the series.

If you've read Rona Jaffe's The Best of Everything, you'll find a similar style and tone in Tales of the City, which features an era two decades later. Regardless of my personal reaction to the book, it's a good one for anyone to read because of its clear influence on story structure and LGBT representation in media, and because there's a good chance something in the story will connect with you, too.

No comments: