Thursday, August 6, 2009

Of Mice and Bookmen

Greetings, Colleagues--

Nine Bookmen (including two first-timers) attended the Aug. 5 discussion of Armistead Maupin's novel, "Michael Tolliver Lives." Here are some observations about the novel that I believe reflect our consensus, though not necessarily unanimity.

Nearly all those present have read at least some of the six-volume "Tales of the City" series. Some had also heard Maupin read them on audiobooks and/or seen the three TV adaptations (the first ran on PBS, the second and third on Showtime).

With that in mind, the group agreed that one of the pleasures of reading this latest book was finding out what had happened to the main characters from Barbary Lane and environs. However, we did not get into the question of whether MTL is functionally a seventh volume in the series or stands on its own (which I take as meaning most of us assumed it is the former).

We agreed that the novel is significantly less political than its predecessors, with little social commentary. In fact, one member commented that the references to Bush, Iraq, etc., seemed "dropped in" rather than organic to the story (such as it was). Overall, however, I didn't sense that change was a problem for most of the group.

The switch from the "Tales" series' third-person omniscient narrator to first-person removes any lingering doubt that Maupin is Michael Tolliver, but did not jar most of the group (though I must say it did bother me, at least to some extent).

I also expressed my disappointment (speaking as a Louisiana boy) that the chapters where Michael goes home to see his mother verged so close on Southern Gothic. However, that was distinctly a minority view.

Overall, the group enjoyed reading (or rereading in some cases) "Michael Tolliver Lives." As one member said (I'm paraphrasing here): "Great literature it ain't, but it is a good summer read." Cheers, Steve

Michael Tolliver Lives in a Fairy Tale

Some writers create fictional worlds that are seemingly “better” than the “real” ones. The motivations for doing so may vary. Some may wish to replace unpleasant memories of real events with happier memories of fictional events. Others may wish to emphasize harmonious elements to divert attention from the discordant. Regardless of Armistead Maupin’s motives, he has created a likable enough tale of a 55-year-old gay man’s life in 2006 San Francisco. There is place for breezy stories where the conflicts presented may only remotely resemble the conflicts of our real lives. These stories take us away from our daily troubles and throw us in fairy tale land where love is found, held on to, and flawless.

Maupin applies several techniques to draw us into this world. By assembling details common to many middle-aged gay city-dwelling men, such readers can say, “yes, I’ve had that experience.” The author is “one of us” and we open our ears to him. The references to gay culture create the necessary foundation upon which stand idealized versions of lovers and friends, either steadfast or returning. The camaraderie of logical family members taking care of one another adds comfort. A revealed secret about a father’s last sordid act is intended to add drama. A young woman’s sex blog is intended to add spice. Michael Tolliver’s choice to be with the sage Anna Madrigal rather than his mother at their times of need adds humor with the revelation “there is no fifth destination,” and poignancy with his mother holding the photo of Michael and his husband.

The entire package was not a completely satisfying reading experience for me. I would have preferred a grittier plot or more artful writing. The book is redeemed by its humor and its depiction of a small supportive community in a city with people like us.


Wednesday, August 5, 2009

No Fifth Destination

You can't go home again! Writing in the first person, Maupin misses the opportunity to create a distinctive voice while losing the consistent discipline of a third-person viewpoint. When not writing about himself and "Ben", the tales are an okay follow-up to the earlier series; otherwise, the writing becomes so treacly that one despairs of escape (Ben, the perfect husband, in the perfect marriage, only ever so slightly marred by the narrator's chubby anxiety about not being worthy of so much wonderfulness and gratitude that it's his).