Tweak my nipple

Adam Mars-Jones

  • Maybe the Moon by Armistead Maupin
    Bantam, 307 pp, £14.99, February 1993, ISBN 0 593 02765 5

Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, which started appearing as a newspaper serial in the mid-Seventies, and in volume form a few years later, are little classics of light literature: in their lightness they outweigh any number of more earnest enterprises. Maupin’s San Francisco is a carousel lightly disguised as a city, a continuous party where everyone is welcome without any tedious obligation to fit in, and even the hangovers are fun.

To gay readers these books offered an extraordinary experience, of having their difference neither denied nor insisted on, but dissolved for the duration – far less of an existential branding in this jaunty utopia than, say, coming from Cleveland. Maupin was always a pragmatist rather than an ideologue (he waited until after his probationary period with the newspaper that was publishing the serial was safely over before introducing a gay character), or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he was a pragmatic ideologue. With his deft braiding of characters and story-lines, he won an enormous and diverse audience. With the advent, though, of Aids, Maupin faced a greater problem even than most writers with a tacit commitment to chronicling their times, in however breezy a fashion. Aids attacked the central principle of soap opera, the democracy of problems, the approximate interchangeability of crises. What could conceivably act as a counterweight to a virus that was not only fatal in its operations, but apparently discriminatory in its targets?

Maupin’s solution, in the later, Aids-era books of the series (Babycakes, Significant Others, Sure of You), was to slow the carousel down. The earlier volumes had gone in for almost impudently assured dramatic plotting, featuring, for instance, transsexualism, child pornography, strange cults and the return to San Francisco of a Jim Jones reprieved from death. Now Maupin cut back on lurid invention, and his focus became more domestic. But his work had always been defined by its airy momentum, and lost a lot of its distinctiveness when the ride slowed down, the bunting flown at half-mast. It began to seem that Aids was something that Maupin could neither responsibly leave out nor satisfactorily represent, but then the literary response to something so abruptly devastating can only be assessed by degrees of failure.

Now, with Maybe the Moon, Maupin has reformulated his fictional universe, choosing a first-person protagonist who is heterosexual, female and lives in Los Angeles. Of these innovations, the most crucial turns out to be the change of city. San Francisco, compact and well-served by public transport, provided much convenient infrastructure for the narrative counterpoint of the earlier series: the bars, neighbourhood shops, parks and launderettes where disparate characters could collide without too much contrivance. Los Angeles by contrast is a town of meetings and unlisted numbers, and above all – if you are a struggling actress – of waiting for the phone to ring. With ten times the area of San Francisco, it offers far less promiscuous mutual mingling of lives, particularly for someone who for a specific technical reason (being, at 31 inches tall, the world’s smallest mobile adult human) lacks access to personal transportation.

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