Sunday, October 26, 2008

Serialized Seventies S.F.

Having got the lay of the land in San Francisco, I felt ready to tackle perhaps the most famous literature ever to come out of these here hills: Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City. Well, "tackle" is the wrong word for this breezy and loving tribute to my new town. I loved reading it on my morning commute because it made me think of all the commuters who first read Tales of the City when it was a newspaper serial; also because the short chapters make it easy to get to a good stopping place.

However, I'm hesitant to call it the ultimate San Francisco book, at least for people of my generation, because it seems so 1970s. Maupin's attention to sociological details--what his characters wear, eat, believe, do for fun--makes it a great portrait of life in San Francisco then, but I don't know if it has much to do with what I'm experiencing now. It's hard to go back to a time pre-AIDS, pre-Harvey Milk's assassination, and less than 10 years removed from the Summer of Love.

Though I loved reading Tales of the City on the bus, I often wished I had Wikipedia beside me to look up the more obscure pop culture references. Because of my ignorance of '70s trends, I sometimes wasn't even sure what I was supposed to think of the characters. For instance, Mary Ann always asks her guests if they would like a creme de menthe. Now, I don't know any young women who drink creme de menthe these days, but was it popular in the '70s? If it was, then we're supposed to think of Mary Ann as mainstream or trendy. But if it was just as uncommon as it is today, then we're supposed to think of her as quirky or weird. Which is it?

Or, Maupin mocks '70s fads and the people who slavishly follow them, like Mary Ann's friend Connie with her "macrame plant hangers, monkey pod salad sets and Pet Rock." But to me, Mary Ann's wicker sofa and Michael's Est seminars are just as painfully 1970s as Connie's macrame--yet those characters are meant to be sympathetic, not satirical.

I do like the way Maupin emphasizes San Francisco's oddly small-town feel--maybe if you've never lived here you'd think that the coincidences in the novel are melodramatic, but even in my short time here I've met friends-of-friends in unexpected places, that kind of thing. Plus, the interconnectedness of the Tales of the City characters allows Maupin to pack in observations about people from all different backgrounds and classes, which is one of the book's strengths.

Perhaps what I most enjoyed about Tales of the City is that it's a modern novel that was originally published as a serial. I think the only other serialized novels I've read are by Charles Dickens, whose chapters are much longer and whose structures seem more carefully planned out--thus much closer to a conventionally written novel. There is no doubt in my mind that when Dickens began A Tale of Two Cities with "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," he knew he'd end it with "'It is a far far better thing." Whereas, even halfway through Tales of the City, I had no idea where it was going, other than presenting a collection of vignettes in the lives of some memorable characters. (Ha! Do you know it only just occurred to me that the title Tales of the City is a play on Dickens' novel?)

But because of its short chapters, (initially) loose structure, and Maupin's afterword where he admits that much of what he writes about was taken from what he observed in his daily life, Tales of the City makes writing a novel look easy. You think to yourself, "I could do this--write one three-page scene a day and have a novel in four months--six at most." You start imagining how you could use the colorful personalities you've met as characters in your stories--not writing an autobiographical account of your time in San Francisco, but recombining events from your own experience and those of your friends and acquaintances. You redouble your vow to journal about everything you see in the hopes of using it later.

So, while I can't say that reading Tales of the City has taught me anything practical about life in San Francisco (because it is 30+ years out of date), it has definitely caused me to look at the city in a new way.


Brutarius said...

For a different take on 1970s' San Francisco you should check out a book called "Watering the Greyhound Garden" by Warren Smith. Smith was a social worker for Travelers Aid at the Greyhound Station in the mid- to late-Seventies and met people from all walks of life who, for one reason or another, wound up in San Francisco, usually in emotional, physical, or financial distress. While the book is a stories of vignettes of how he helped these people get on their feet in the city by the bay (or helped them get out because they really needed to be someplace else!), it does capture the vibe of the city in a unique and personalized way.

In way of disclosure, I copy-edited the book for Mr. Smith but it certainly wasn't a chore -- I fell in love with the characters and setting almost from the start.

You can find it easily on Amazon in print and Kindle editions. If you'd like a review copy, please reply and I can have one mailed to you (or emailed if you have Kindle).

Marissa Skudlarek said...

Hi Brutarius, thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, due to demands on my limited free time, I am not able to accept a review copy of your friend's book.