I know The Tales of the City series are a life-defining series of books for some people, who’ve followed the characters from the seventies to present day, culminating in this final volume, The Days of Anna Madrigal, (allegedly the final novel, although I have a vague feeling he’s said that before.) I, however, am not one of them. I know of them (it’s hard not to soak up some of the content if you’re in any way interested in LGBT literature), I’ve watched the miniseries and I’ve read Michael Tolliver Lives, a mid-series volume. I’ve always had the best intentions of reading the series, but never gotten around to it, until I was asked to read The Days of Anna Madrigal for the Gaydio book club. Unwilling to turn down an advanced-reading-copy (hipster reader that I am), I said yes. I read the first thirty pages on Canal Street–an appropriately bohemian setting–and polished off the remaining 240 pages last night in one long, late-night So, from a standing start, with no real foreknowledge of the series, how did I feel about a story so explicitly drenched in exploring the totemic matriarch of the entire series?
Well, I bloody loved it.
Maupin is adept at weaving in his past fictional histories seamlessly into the novel so that the sense of vivid nostalgia infused into everyone’s stories (aging gently as they all were) was conjured instantly and powerfully, a feeling I can imagine is manifested stronger for those who have actually followed these stories for decades. The sign of a superb writer, not a single person in the book felt like a character — they were living and breathing, dialogue rendered adroitly with humour and pathos. The twin threads of the novel concern Anna Madrigal — the 92-year-old transgender woman who has overseen the whole series with a guiding hand — returning to her home in Winnemucca, interspersed with flashbacks to her teenage self, Andy, and the rest of the gang of characters pilgramage to Burning Man in the desert.
The reference of Andy as a third-person character so completely removed, and yet so clearly linked, to Anna speaks more about her than half of the exposition another writer might have laboured on. More impressively, Anna’s story is told with admirable restraint, avoiding the temptation to layer on ever detail of his defining characters past, and still allowing gulfs of mystery filled with the slightest of shade and suggestion.
On the flip-side of thing, Burning Man is rendered in all its dusty abandon, and makes for an interesting backdrop of ‘alternate lifestyles’, whereby the ‘alternate lifestyles’ once championed by Tales of the City have turned into garden variety ‘lifestyles’. The triumph of the novel is Maupin’s way with language.
He can skewer a sentiment–from the most transient of feelings to the most boomingly emotive–in sentences of elegance and beauty. Seven or eight times in the book would occur a sentence that, whilst never propped up and signposted on the page, would open up to a world of recognition inside it. More than this, so many of them cast a light on the singular world of gay experience, so rare to come across so well expressed on the page.
And of course, the ending, as the threads knit together, allow for a series of emotional gut-punches, with the final two paragraphs taking the triumphant, celebratory ending and sidestepping into the bittersweet world of a personal history lost to time but not memory. Anna Madrigal is a superlative character and, if anything, my biggest criticism of the novel dedicated to exploring her was that there simply wasn’t enough of her. I think it speaks volumes that someone can enter the final volume of a long series and still feel enmeshed and emotionally involved, and the first Tales of the City novel is winging its way to me now… I shall most certainly be starting at the beginning and working my way back to the end.