Friday, October 4, 2013

Armistead Maupin’s Mary Ann in Autumn

Like a reunion, it’s comforting but reminds us of mortality

The Set for Tales of the City on PBS
     When Tales of the City was first broadcast as a mini-series on PBS in January 1994, I went ahead and read the whole collection of 28 Barbary Lane novels.  At that point, there were six, published between 1978 and 1989.  A couple of times
I stayed up until 2 a.m. reading just one more chapter.  The books were like cookies because they were written in short bites with a small circle of compelling characters that interacted with one another in familiar, surprising, and sometimes shocking ways.  Maupin never introduced even a tertiary character for a casual reason; each of them functioned as a plot device and the coincidences were sometimes surprising, while other times they seemed to be forced.  I think I tore through the series in about three weeks and I am a slow, thorough reader.

     The first six books began as weekly chapters in a San Francisco alternative newspaper.  Imagine if Citybeat published a continuing fiction column and, thankfully, cut back one page from its exhaustive coverage of the music scene.  Oh well, we can always wish.  They made Maupin’s reputation internationally, though critics always felt the need to emphasize their importance and in a couple of instances he was compared to Dickens and Balzac.  Sure, the saga presents the San Francisco and its Age of Aquarius half-life during the hedonistic ‘70s and the acquisitive ‘80s, but it doesn’t move literature into a new direction as those supposed forebears did.  However, there’s a spirit of joy in the characters finding friends and family and returning to them as a reader.  That’s the main attraction, rather than the misplaced notion that they’re somehow emotionally deep or stylistically innovative.

     Mary Ann in Autumn (2010) is the eighth book.  I didn’t read Michael Tolliver Lives (2007) because I’d enjoyed Maupin’s post-Tales novels and it felt like a step backward.  Plus, the ironically titled Sure of You (1989) brought the series to a jolting, but definite, conclusion.  I saw Mary Ann in the sale rack in Barnes & Noble and thought, ‘oh why not?’  Like the first two Tales especiallly, it has a discrete plot that’s much tighter than it initially appears, though it relies on narrative serendipity (i.e. almost unbelievable coincidence) to a degree that delights, but undercuts its naturalism.  There are a couple of newer, younger characters that add some zest and emotional surprise to the proceedings.  

Anna (Olympia Dukakis) with Dexter in the Garden
     I still love Anna Madrigal (a man and a girl), but how much longer can she last?  She was almost sixty in ’76, when the series began.  I missed Brian, referred to a couple of times, and Mona died years ago.  Mary Ann and Michael pretty much take center stage, but there’s nothing really new about their characters or their friendship.  Maupin seems to backpedal about Mary Ann.  He wants her to be nice (anathema to art or even popular literature), but what was most interesting about her was that she progressed from a Midwestern innocent in 1976 to a driven, ambitious professional who departed this arcadia in 1988.  Ultimately, she failed in a number of ways and so she returns.  It won’t surprise fans that haven’t read the book that she’s welcomed back into the fold after a couple of catastrophes.  There always is the capacity for horror in Maupin’s work and that’s what makes it most intriguing.  For those that haven’t read any of the Tales, then read the first one (Tales of the City) before this book because it literally and figuratively bookends what happens in Mary Ann in Autumn


Bea said...

I remember when the televised version was on PBS; it was such a treat to watch. I recall meeting a man in London a few years back who had specifically traveled to SF to see 28 Barbary Ln. and was disappointed to find out it did not exist. Mary Ann in Autumn was a good read, but left me feeling melancholy.

Matthew Makeup said...

I hope you do go on to read Michael Tolliver Lives as it is written as though it's almost Michael's diary and it's just a great book in itself.