Book #35: Tales of the City (1980)

16255author: Armistead Maupin
read by: Frances McDormand
language: English
length: 459 minutes (7 hours 9 minutes)
finished listening on: 18 June 2013

This is actually another book I was given as a present a few years ago, but never got around to reading. Unlike “Neverwhere”, however, I didn’t actually bring it with me to Japan. Instead I downloaded it as an audiobook. It was read by Frances McDormand, whose name I recognized vaguely, but it took far too long for me to remember who she was and put a face to the name (she’s in Fargo and other Coen brothers movies). Because she has quite a harsh American accent and isn’t as talented at changing it for different characters as some other audiobook readers have been in my experience, it was quite a different feel to the last audiobook I listened to.

In any case, Tales of the City is set in San Francisco in the late 70s or early 80s, just as the AIDS crisis was about to hit. It mentions at least one character who was doomed to die, I assume from AIDS, but it doesn’t explicitly say so. It’s also one of those few books to contain gay characters, even if it’s just really one main character and some of his boyfriends. It contains a lot of characters, though, and it took me a while to get used to the onslaught of names to remember (this is more difficult when you’re listening because you have to try not to get distracted). In many ways it resembles a soap opera or something – the story mainly deals with their daily lives and is much more interested in the characters than in having any overarching plot common to them all.

“Tales” seems to have as part of its conceit named chapters without numbers – at least, that’s the way they were read to me. I guess the idea is that each one is a “tale of the city”. It’s also in the “serial novel” genre, with a great many sequels following. I should note at this point that I another book I read recently, “Boy Meets Boy”, did the same thing with its chapters – perhaps a subtle homage to this book? It’s possible!

Particularly regarding gay issues in the book, there are many that were not familiar to me, because I’m reading it thirty years later, but a lot of it was eerily similar, and I could certainly see parts of myself in the gay characters. Regarding other issues, there were a lot of pop culture references that I simply didn’t get because I wasn’t around at the time. But again, not as much as I’d have thought has changed – human relationships still basically work in the same way, Facebook notwithstanding.

As a whole, I enjoyed listening to it, and indeed looked forward to doing so, but a few weeks later writing this review I can remember very little of the plot. It was very transient in nature, gripping for a long enough time to want to keep going but not quite interesting enough to stay in the memory. The characters were all interesting in their own ways, but there were so many that I simply lost track. By the nature of the book, I would hear about one pair of characters one day and another the next, so information retention became difficult. But even so they were interesting, and I would perhaps like to try the sequels – but I have other priorities for the time being, so maybe as a future idea.

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