The Books That Defined The ‘Lifestyle Choice’ Era
In 1977, Cyra McFadden’s novel ‘The Serial’ satirized the self-obsessed new-age lifestyles of affluent residents in Marin County, just North of San Francisco, with their organic vegetable gardens, tantric sex sessions and bicycle races to work. ‘I thought I was discovering myself,’ says one character, ‘but it turns out I was having a nervous breakdown.’
Three years earlier Armistead Maupin had already made the point with a gentler take on West Coast social mores in ‘Tales Of The City’, serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle. The collected columns became a best-seller. Serial fiction columns were not uncommon in the US press, but ‘Tales’ struck a chord because it was written so close to deadlines that it accurately reflected current events, and Maupin controlled his characters like a kind of metrosexual Dickens.
The book followed the tangled personal lives of tenants at 28, Barbary Lane, introduced through the ever-widening eyes of Mary Ann Singleton, newly arrived from Cleveland, Ohio. The characters she encountered were calibrated from hippy to yuppy, gay to straight and all points in between, including sweet Michael ‘Mouse’ Tolliver and dope-growing landlady Mrs Madrigal.
It was such a hit that it became the first of six sequential novels and three television series. It took British producers not get the TV show made, as it was too hot for US networks. Readers responded with the kind of fanatical loyalty that places burdens on novelists, sometimes forcing them to continue beyond the natural lifespan of their characters.
Part of the appeal of the decade-long ‘Tales’ lay in their inclusive approach to outsiders. Maupin was among the first writers to delve into the idea of chosen families taking precedence over birth families, and showed that lives which might appear outwardly exotic were subject to the same stresses and tensions as everyone else’s.
Subversive writing makes shocking ideas attractive, and the books are impossible to dislike, even given the sense of impromptu construction that holds the plotting in place. Maupin’s language is readable and light but filled with grace-notes, his dialogue is genuinely conversational and his insights contain sensible truths.
But there was something else as well, an aura of mystery that allowed the tenants of Barbary Lane some private space between the pages. Maupin is careful not to dissect his characters like biology specimens, and over the years they fell out, formed new loyalties or got lost. The plots were as intricate as Victorian needlepoint, filled with coincidence and trickery (anagrams! Amnesia! Secret birthrights!) and the series became something more than soap, especially as the bewildering horror of the early AIDS epidemic darkened its tone.
By now a shift had occurred in the Western world outside; the urban lifestyles of these fierce creatures were becoming the norm, and Maupin’s exotics could now be found anywhere on the Northern Line. The ‘City’ boys and girls were left behind as a tougher new breed of real alternative lifestylers overtook them.
And a misstep occurred; Maupin revived the characters in a first-person sequel delivered nearly twenty years later in ‘Michael Tolliver Lives’. The slight tale felt too pleased with itself, functioning as little more than a ‘Where Are They Now?’ magazine article. By this time Mary Ann had become a monster and a faint aura of bitterness underscored the shenanigans. To be fair, Maupin was accurately reflecting the times again as the Me Generation aged unattractively and innocence was replaced by selfishness.
Happily, there was another to come. ‘Mary Ann In Autumn’ restores the lustre of the original story arc. Mary Ann is now 57 and has abandoned an unfaithful husband to return to San Francisco with unwelcome news about her health. The house in Barbary Lane is now a ‘single family dwelling’. Michael is still gardening with his young husband Ben and the surviving members of the crowd, who have aged in real time, are older and wiser. Among the younger characters, Mary Ann’s adoptive daughter Shawna, blogging and dating Otto the clown, and Jake Greenleaf, a gender-confused gardening assistant, give the tale fresh appeal. Jake wasn’t the only one in confusion; some gender terminology defeated me. Anna Madrigal is still going strong at 87 – Maupin has fun by introducing her lying on the floor, apparently dead – and those jaw-dropping coincidences are back in place.
So is the pertinent social observation. Why, Maupin asks, does Calvin Klein need to have his name emblazoned on an AIDS memorial tree when he’s on half the backsides in the Bay Area? Couldn’t he have donated anonymously? And there are new challenges to overcome. Michael has been married three times to the same man because Proposition 8, banning same-sex marriages, is still being repealed and upheld.
The hot mess of relationships is as convoluted as ever, but now we’re less shockable. Eco-friendly sex toys? Cross-gender urination devices? Sperm spa facials? What once felt like an advance-party for the future can now be seen for what it is; the liberal lifestyle of the inhabitants of a tiny, tiny bubble on the far side of the world. But the residents’ generosity of spirit, reflected from Maupin’s own luminous world-view, remains liberating. Old friends, good times and a powerful conclusion; Maupin feels the love and shares it with his readers. The story has continued with one (probably) final volume; ‘The Days of Anna Madrigal’.