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.
Cadence Roth, known as Cady, is a dwarf whose show-business aspirations were both fulfilled and strangled at birth, ten years before the action of the book, by a starring but paradoxical role in a classic film for children of all ages, Mr Woods. She played an elf who transforms the life of a shy 11-year-old boy living in the suburbs but she was enclosed in a suffocating rubber suit at the time. Not only that, but afterwards she was under strong pressure from the film’s director, Philip Blenheim, not to reveal that she was anything more than an operator of special effects. Publicising her human contribution would spoil the magic of the film, you see, and he was bound to be against that.
The echoes of ET are pretty deafening here, though Maupin is careful to give Blenheim a physical description incompatible with Spielberg’s, and indeed to refer to actual Spielberg once in a while, so as to establish that the fictional Blenheim cannot be any sort of intended representation of the wunderkind that was. All the same, the book’s relatively modest disclaimer of fictiveness, unusual in both acknowledging and disavowing a connection with fact (‘Although it was inspired by a real person, it is entirely a product of the author’s imagination’) and also its dedication (‘For Tamara De Treaux/1959-90/Tammy phone home’), reinforce the suggestion of a link with ET. The film itself gets no mention in the book
Perhaps Maupin can identify with his heroine’s resentment of a great success that stifled her. The early Tales of the City made his reputation, but he can’t go on writing in that vein, not because he has changed but because he hasn’t, while the times have – and so has the City. Part of Maupin certainly gets to work establishing the reality of his heroine’s history and predicament, but another part can’t so easily let go of his own preoccupations. It’s not just that Cady’s best friend, Jeff, is gay and politically aware, so that he can chip in authoritatively from time to time on subjects that matter to Maupin, but that Cady’s own construction of her position in the world is patterned on a gay original, as if it was an ideological equivalent of a back-formation in language.
The analogy is explicitly made early on: ‘Little people can turn up anywhere, just like redheads and queers.’ (Cady is an insider confident enough to use words like ‘queer’ and ‘homo’ without fear of being misunderstood.) It’s plausible that Cady should like the company of gay men, who never make her feel ‘Martian’ – whose sexual rejection of her, to put it another way, is reassuringly undiscriminating. It’s a little less plausible that she should be so quietly up-to-the-minute about gay life, to the point where she never puts a foot wrong. Even her sex-play, when some comes her way, is gay-informed. She has learned from Jeff that some men like to have their nipples tweaked at intimate moments, and takes a chance on this exotic manoeuvre. It’s a great success.
Some passages, though, read as if gay politics were being not so much absorbed by an intuitive fellow-traveller as projected onto his character by a writer straying a little nervously from his patch. When Cady wonders whether the rare man who fancies her is merely being kinky, this shows her how thoroughly she’s been ‘victimised by the semantics of the larger world’. When she finds a denatured edition of Rumpelstiltskin, in which the evil dwarf becomes no more than a ‘little man’, she comes to a resoundingly ideological conclusion: ‘Such liberal revisionism is progress only if one prefers complete invisibility to outright scorn.’
‘Invisibility’ is a watchword in gay politics because it is in fact possible to conceal or deny one’s sexual orientation, and so the absence from the media of a range of homosexual representations encourages self-oppressive silence. But dwarfism is a rather different condition, visible to excess, impossible to disavow (the book contains a closet midget, a full-grown actor who plays a child, but dwarfs don’t have that option). It strikes a false note that Cady should articulate her feelings in a register more off-the-peg than made to measure for her. Her analysis of her situation is simply too slick to convince, coming from someone who gains no meaningful help from the one organisation that sets itself up as a support group, the LPA – Little People of America.
Sometimes it seems that dwarfism is analogous not simply to being gay but to living with Aids: ‘When you’re a walking bag of organs like moi, you just can’t help wondering how much time you’ve got left.’ Cady misses at one particular point in the story Jeff’s dead lover Ned: ‘In the last months of his life we spent hours together, playing cards and putzing in his garden and enjoying the unspoken irony that fate had made us equals of a sort. Ned and I treasured each other’s company all the more, I think, because we both knew what it felt like to be living on a deadline.’ Aids, the subject that so troubled the progress of the later Tales of the City – impossible either to accommodate or to exclude – here puts in an equally troubling return. The tone darkens uncomfortably, with the first mention of Cady’s likely short span of life.
Many elements of the book in fact have the same property, of seeming both too serious and not serious enough – like Cady’s silence-equals-death badge, in pink rhinestone. The tone of the novel is often rather unsettled, with a characteristic dilute spikiness, as of someone with a talent for bitchy observation taking care to rein it in. Cady’s love-interest, who is also a co-worker (they put on entertainment at children’s parties), has a living room ‘that had almost certainly been furnished on a single Saturday morning at Pier One Imports’.
A later description, of a long-married couple, conveys the same impression of acidity brought artificially down to a more neutral pH: ‘You could tell at a glance they were one of those couples who do everything together. I just knew they owned matching nylon wind-breakers.’ Artificial fibres in fiction always betray authorial judgment.
This is a couple whose daughter has just killed herself, an act about which Cady, who was making a film with her just before the suicide, feels both guilt and a queasy self-exoneration. But the funeral becomes a romantic excursion, and the death that occasioned it is rapidly forgotten.
The vital ingredient of Maupin’s style at its best is pace. He has never gone in for pages or paragraphs that readers are likely to read again and again or get by heart, but specialises in a spry contrapuntal forward movement. In the absence of such momentum, which the single-strand plotting of Maybe the Moon more or less precludes, none of his effects quite comes off. Take a paragraph like this one, which ends a chapter: ‘Like I’ve always said, love wouldn’t be blind if the braille weren’t so damned much fun.’ With a brisk narrative breeze blowing through the book, no reader would dwell on this epigram manqué. But without a strong urge to move on to the next chapter, the eye is bound to linger that fraction too long, and the mind to do a double take. ‘Hold on. Love wouldn’t be blind if ...’ Such pedantic hesitations are fatal to the Maupin magic.
The experienced Maupin reader can even pinpoint the moment in Maybe the Moon when on past form he would change up a gear, or thicken the brew with a new and wholly unexpected ingredient. Cady is in unfamiliar territory, having a pee in the house of Neil, the co-worker to whom she is attracted, and who has just made her an impromptu and all the more satisfying dinner. The mood of the passage is mutedly lyrical, but then so it should be for maximum effect – or so says the part of a reader’s mind that loves to be manipulated, that glories in its own susceptibility. Cady scans the pictures on the bathroom wall, drawings by Neil’s son Danny, photos of Neil, family and friends. In the Tales of the City series, Maupin created characters who were not the gender they seemed, who were not the race they seemed. What surprise can he be working now?
No surprise. The passage continues with Cady reflecting: ‘I felt such a part of him suddenly, such a perfectly natural adjunct to his life. I wouldn’t make a big deal out of that, I promised myself: it was enough just to know it was there.’ The reader is left feeling not ‘Aaaah’ but, thanks to a slight sloppiness of phrasing, ‘What was where?’ The mood is sustained without surprises, and the section fizzles out. It’s as if Maupin is writing Cady with his left hand, as an exercise (left-handers, reverse the polarity). He’s an accomplished enough craftsman that he warms to it all the same, and produces scenes of considerable poignancy, but then something he reads in the papers fires him up, and then that restless, practised right hand of his gets in on the act. So he manages to bring off a scene of his heroine having foreplay in a swimming-pool, without undue coyness: she even breaks free of gay-derived technique, and uses her foot in a way that just doesn’t work for couples of equal size. But only a few pages later, along comes something much closer to home for the author, and a real issue swamps these invented lives.
The issue is the film Basic Instinct, transparently fictionalised as Gut Reaction, a homophobic shocker that Jeff’s new lover, a young movie actor very much in the closet, accepts a big part in. As the gay ideologue and the closet case confront each other, a novel that has put a low priority on tension briefly crackles with it. Cady’s role in the confrontation is to keep the peace (‘For all I knew, he had a valid point, but he’d picked a crummy time to make it’), but the book’s centre of gravity has certainly moved away, for the duration of the scene, from its narrator.
The underlying conceit of Maybe the Moon is that Cady writes a diary, at the instigation of her roommate Renee, with a view to starring in the movie version of her life. The book then ends with an exchange of letters between Philip Blenheim and Dianne Hartwig, director and screenwriter respectively of Mr Woods, in which they plan to make a very different film from this raw material, one in which Cady’s life is thoroughly sweetened and trivialised. (Rather perversely on Maupin’s part, they consider disguising the elf, in their fictionalised film, as an extraterrestrial.)
This sort of final ironising twist isn’t really in Armistead Maupin’s line, and perhaps wouldn’t have occurred to him if Cady’s story had properly taken off. But the mixture has never quite jelled. There’s more of the reality-principle here than the genre can hold, a mortal sigh inside the soap-bubble. At first, for instance, Cady is a great success at children’s parties, but when her novelty has worn off her grotesqueness remains (Maupin doesn’t take the easy way out of having a heroine who is midget rather than a dwarf) and makes people uncomfortable.
Escapism is a precarious business, since we are doomed to carry with us, no matter where, those things from which we want to escape. The subject of Aids is what Armistead Maupin is trying to get away from with his new heroine and new city, but though the epidemic is barely present in the book it still seems to inhibit his loss of himself in his story, like the speck of yolk that makes it impossible to beat egg-whites to full fluffiness. There is a heart-heaviness about Maybe the Moon that makes this colourful balloon hug the ground.