Mary Ann in Autumn

Michael Tolliver lives! … Again!
A three year gap is significantly less than eighteen years. On top of that, this is the first Tales of the City book that I have read contemporaneously. Do you have any idea how strange it is to shift from Maupin speaking to people who predate me to him speaking directly to me, the world in which I’m living? It’s a stretch.

I think that Tales of the City books work best as capsules of their time, which of course means, except for Sure of You, they improve with age. That Maupin now speaks of Twitter and Facebook with varying degrees of understanding feels strange to me. Did readers thirty years ago think that D’orothea and DeDe’s involvement with Jonestown was simply bizarre (well, it was by default, but … more bizarre?)?
All this is not to say that Mary Ann in Autumn is a bad book or disappointing. For me, at least, it is essential for its service in returning Mary Ann to her figuratively ancestral home. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I tell you how badly betrayed I felt by her in Sure of You. Mary Ann is not absolved of her sins, but it seems she may well be redeemed.

Mary Ann comes to San Francisco seeking cancer treatment and escape from her (Republican) husband. She further reconnects with Michael, and … kind of ignores everyone else. Her estranged daughter Shawna becomes fascianted by a homeless woman, and nothing else specific happens but, in a return to classic Tales form, the threads of coincidence ridiculously intertwine into a somewhat cohesive whole.

Mary Ann in Autumn is deliberately more sprawling than Michael Tolliver Lives and consequently significantly less personal. It would perhaps be indulgent for Maupin to start producing first person novels for each of the major characters he has introduced along the way, but it would have been nice to get a feeling for Mary Ann’s inner self. In fact, I think that may have made an overall more satisfying work here, but it would also have meant sacrificing the plot threads.

Would they have been sorely missed? On reflection, definitely, but they are not without their own flaws.

Shawna frequently doesn’t quite seem like a real character, but rather more of a construct to represent what Maupin considers the “zeitgeist” (having subconsciously realised that he has written her into a corner as a “grrrl”, which must make him cringe deep in his heart of hearts). Her pursuit of Leia is little more than a whim used to power Maupin’s enormous six degrees machine, and she doesn’t come into her own until she’s following up on actual human relationships, both with her estranged mother and her clown boyfriend Otto.
There is subtlety and nuance to Shawna, but Maupin wants to bury it underneath her cool facade. He acknowledges this much, and that sparkle of honesty towards the end carries a character that had come dangerously close to caricature over the line.

Jake Greenleaf’s own story, though less “common”, seems more topical and relevant in the scheme of the universe, if not the novel. Jake’s story is worthy and carries with it overtones of Mormonism and Proposition 8, which were probably more closely intertwined to the citizens of San Francisco than they were to anyone else. Away from the prism of Michael, Jake is given room to breathe. This isn’t really Michael’s story at all, although he does feature prominently. Giving Jake agency to do things outside the aegis of his boss was a smart move on Maupin’s part and is a valuable part of the novel, but at the same time Jake’s own story has no bearing on Mary Ann’s own through-line. Worthy in its own way, but discardable in the novel’s larger context.

So I guess that’s the problem with Maupin as he’s advanced his career: he’s given us knowledge of a different way to consume his work. The irony is that a scant two weeks ago I was complaining that the use of Michael’s voice in Michael Tolliver Lives was uneasy, a pedagogue in search of an audience that he never quite finds. In Mary Ann in Autumn, at least, we don’t have to worry about that. The matter of fact narration leaves no room for worry or questioning.

As to Mary Ann herself: it’s good to see her back, and human again. I felt that Maupin had stripped her of humanity twenty years ago and, at the time, I couldn’t forgive a fictional character for compromising herself so severely in pursuit of an ill-informed dream. She has felt her age differently to Michael, in part because she threw away almost twenty years of her life. For Mary Ann, a return to San Francisco is a return to a dreamlike state where only important things matter and nothing hurts.

This is different to the escapism that Maupin used to promote, but that was compromised understandably and irrevocably by the intrusion of AIDS into the characters’ milieu. Escapism seems that much more heavy when you have something that you need to escape, and she certainly does. It would be stupid to say that Mary Ann “finds” herself, but she definitely rediscovers what made her likeable in the first place. That Maupin has made me blur the lines between the way that the character is written and the way that the character is tells me that he has done an excellent job over the last 33 years (even if I only read all of the books last year).
It’s just a pity that Mary Ann decides to expend so much of her energy on the blue glow of Facebook rather than showing slightly more of herself to the characters and, consequently, the reader. Mary Ann’s representation is definitely not shallow, but it could certainly be somewhat deeper than it has amounted to. In light of my memories of Further Tales of the City, I have decided not to criticise the sheer ridiculousness of the force of coincidence in this book simply because nothing is as weird or as unlikely as that book’s Jonestown storyline. But hey, closure … I guess.

The other thing is that Armistead Maupin is now legitimately older himself, if not simply old. This reflects in his cluelessness as to the cluelessness of younger people. The older generation of characters express frequent frustration that the younger don’t understand their cultural points of reference anymore. In Michael Tolliver Lives, Ben didn’t know who Sally Bowles is, which must be some sort of crime, and in Mary Ann in Autumn Jake has no idea who Scarlett O’Hara is, which is definitely a felony. Everyone knows who Betty Page is, for some reason. Maupin writes the younger characters as if he believes that they belong to a new world, and doesn’t consider that they might simply be ignorant.

Still, Mary Ann in Autumn is welcome: the prodigal daughter has truly returned after too many years in the wilderness, and she has not been found wanting.

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