As the ninth and final installment of Armistead Maupin’s ‘Tales of The City’ is released, we have two complete sets of the books to give away. Stephen Boylan assesses their timeless appeal.
This month sees the release of The Days of Anna Madrigal, the ninth and final book in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series. It’s 36 years since the first book was published and to this day readers remain transfixed, with over six million copies of the series in print. This new book finds Madrigal, the famous landlady of 28 Barbary Lane, embarking on a last journey back to where her life began as a boy in a brothel in rural Nevada.
Advance reviews have been very positive, with critics praising the characterisation and the usual sparkling dialogue. As with the other novels, Maupin places his characters very much in the now and those we first encountered in the disco-loving San Fran of the 1970s now sit comfortably using their iPads, tweeting, and playing Angry Birds.
Each of the books continues to sell hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide each year, but how does a series that began in 1978 continue to appeal to audiences today? Damian Barr, author of Maggie and Me and a fan of the series since he was a teenager, believes the books are now passed from friend to friend to the point where it has crossed generations. Alongside these new readers, Barr believes the enduring appeal for the faithful is that “as the books age we age too, but they’re rarely nostalgic. Rather than seeming dated they serve to remind us of a past time and place. We are all connected by our love of the characters and the world they inhabit.”
Its consistent appeal is also due, in no small part, to how brilliantly sharp and entertaining the writing remains, even though the cultural touch points have substantially shifted. Equally, the short, sharp chapters and paragraphs have an uncanny knack of keeping you hooked; the witty one-liners and cliffhangers are reminiscent of 1980s soap operas, but, happily, the books remain without their hard, melodramatic edge and the cartoonish villains. The joy of the books is that even the most unflattering of characters have their redeeming, vulnerable sides.
While the books are assured a place in the gay canon, what is often forgotten is how central straight characters are to the narrative. While Maupin is at his best playing with notions of fluid sexual and gender identity, characters such as Mary Ann Singleton and Brian Hawkins provide as much of the focus as any of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender characters. As its reputation as a document of gay life has grown, the series has increasingly become classified as ‘gay fiction’, often obscuring its broader portrayal of San Franciscan and American life in the last four decades.
Ultimately, however, the characters’ sexual orientations are beside the point. As Barr rightly points out, the Tales of the City characters’ defining characteristic is that they are all outsiders from the outset, and this is where the universal appeal lies. From a thematic point of view, the series only serves to underline how little the world has changed and how increasingly interconnected we have all become; love, loss, family, and, in particular, the desire to belong have remained central to the heart of the tales from day one.
In finishing the last chapter of this iconic journey, Maupin leaves a remarkable legacy – a witty, moving, vivid look at periods of far-reaching social change. Tales of the City will always be remembered for tackling AIDS head-on, when the epidemic still remained far from the comfortable gaze of the mainstream, but, as with any storytelling, it is the warmth of the characters and the veracity of its truths that will ensure that it endures for generations to come.
Armistead Maupin is in conversation at The Pavillion Theatre this Friday, February 14 at 8pm. Get tickets here.
We have two complete sets of Armistead Maupin’s nine Tales of The City novels to give away. Simply answer the following question:
Who is the landlady of 28 Barbary Lane?
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