Year of a Hundred books – #53 Tales of the City

Tales of the CityTales of the City – Armistead Maupin


Set in the mid-1970s Tales of the City chronicles the lives of a handful of San Franciscans over a number of months, exploring their relationships with each other, their families and their own identities. It’s fairly easy to read, and, as long as you’re not too close-minded to be bothered by reading about mild drugs use and homosexuality, enjoyable enough. But that’s about the best you can say of it.

Tales of the City was originally published serially in the San Francisco Chronicle. I didn’t know this going into the book, and to the best of my knowledge I’ve never read another serialised book (not counting Dickens, which was a monthly, rather than daily, serial). Even so, it was immediately obvious from the way the book was presented that this was not what we would recognise as a “traditional novel”. Each of the book’s chapters is fairly short, often no more than a few pages, and they all feel fairly self-contained, with each mini-chapter ending on a definitive note. I’m not sure how much I liked this, as while it didn’t make the plot hard to follow, it was perhaps less engaging because the narrative is so disjointed.

I don’t know if it’s just the fact that I’m writing this 34 years removed from its publication, but I just didn’t feel that special, aside from the not-quite-a-gimmick of serialisation. Perhaps at the time the social interactions would have been shocking, or controversial, or even innovative, but now they just feel like old hat.

I suppose it should be worth commenting on something that was prominently absent from the book: HIV/AIDS. Except, to say that it was absent is a bit misleading, because the book was written three years before the disease was identified, and as far as I can tell, later instalments in the series do deal with fallout from the disease. I don’t know if I should feel ashamed of the fact that I automatically assumed that the disease would play a role in the storyline though? Was it because Tales of the City was set in San Francisco, which for some reason I’ve always associated  with the early HIV/AIDS epidemic? Some Googling suggests the city was home to the first acknowledged case in the US, so at least that was well founded. Or was it, more troublingly, simply because there were gay characters in the book? If so, is that simply because of my perception of LGBT literature? I don’t have the answer to any of these questions, and it is making me feel bad, so I’m not going to think about it much more, but regardless of whatever it may say about me, it’s an interesting reminder that before all the unpleasantness of the 1980s and 90s, there was a more innocent time before it.

I don’t know if I care enough about the characters to want to read any of the further Tales, but as a first foray into the format, I think Maupin’s work is a good introduction.

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