Melbourne is a city of serendipity and chance meetings, and I rather suspect that if Kevin Bacon lived in Melbourne I suspect that he would know everyone. I met my husband by chance–twice in one night at two different venues, in fact, but that’s a story for a forthcoming review–but continue to be astonished by just how much our social circles overlap. We went to brother and sister high schools; his sister was the year ahead of me at my school; his high school friend is the brother of one of my friends; his cousin is a close friend of one of my uni friends, who’s also a friend of another of my husband’s friends. This sort of thing is bizarrely the norm for Melbourne.
And if Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City is anything to go by, it’s the same in San Francisco. This delightfully zany novel, first published as an ongoing serial, comprises a series of short and sweet vignettes about a half dozen or so people whose lives intersect through all manner of ways: work, housing, sex, the laundrette and many more besides. It’s the sort of thing that perhaps to people living in a place unlike Melbourne (and presumably unlike San Francisco) might feel contrived, like the forcible bashing together of atoms, but to some whose entire social life is a veritable cross-hatch of chance encounters and mysterious acquaintance, it feels oh so comically familiar.
Our catalogue of characters is fascinating and eccentric, running the gamut from the joint-gifting landlady Anna Madrigal to the fish-out-of-water Mary Anne (whose story this seems as though it will be, but isn’t, really) to Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, a kind-natured gay man who easily steals the show. Everyone is connected in some way, and though it’s not always immediately apparent how, I enjoyed watching these connections slowly unfold as the book progressed, as well as watching Maupin juxtapose characters with entirely different outlooks on life.
I think in large part what’s contributed so much to the success of the series is its format. The vignette/serial approach serves to sharpen the delivery of these pointedly mundania-with-a-twist tales while also adding a comic veneer that makes it all, for the most part, work: the result is what feels like a series of pithy yarns. Each is carefully set up, progresses into the realm of the hilariously melodramatic via a page or so of cracking dialogue, and is then rounded off with a zingy one-liner or staccato-like final paragraph that brings it all home. The imposed word-count limitations of the serial format means that there’s little flab here: Maupin relies heavily on dialogue to drive things along, with any exposition having to work hard to justify its presence on the page.
That said, the dialogue-heavy approach does occasionally result in a sense that the stories are sort of floating about on the page, and I did find myself feeling disconnected from the text at certain points. (I do also wonder whether the fact that I’m reading this book as a twenty-something Australian in 2013 has something to do with it given that I suspect that a large part of what makes this book such a cult classic is its keen eye for 70s living and the various individuals and brands, many of which are unfamiliar to me, that are lampooned.)
Still, even though I’m a bit late to the party I had a ball reading about people prowling supermarkets looking to pick up; the dangers of macrame ceiling art; and the problems with injectable melatonin (bizarrely I read a newspaper article about this very thing just yesterday). Give it a shot, and if you happen to bump into me down the street one day, as you no doubt will, let me know what you think.
Rating: (very good)
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Other books by Armistead Maupin: