Sunday, January 04, 2009

Rewriting history/his story: Further Tales of the City

If you're going to seize the imagination, better do it young. Lucky, then, that Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City sequence, six novels about San Francisco life in the 70s and 80s (from pre-Aids to very much the Aids era) which were originally published as a daily newspaper column, got me when I was 14.

Spanning a thousand pages and fourteen years, the series let Maupin create intensely developed characters - a core of half a dozen and a guest cast of hundreds - whose lives are filled with romantic, sexual, fantastical and tragic events, set against the climates of Carter- and Reagan-era America. There is also a Warholesque omnipresence of evocative brand names, making Maupin's San Francisco a vivid, fully-realised picture of the times (and changing times - Betamax recurs in its heyday and then as a laughable historical curio).

This is not to be a paean to Tales, however, although I could quite happily sing its praises for pages. I was recently kindly given all the TV adaptations of the first three novels (Tales of the City, More Tales of the City, Further Tales of the City), and as the third one has not been broadcast in Britain yet, I watched it first.

It has the same excellent cast as the first two (mostly) - Olympia Dukakis as Anna Madrigal, the pot-growing landlady whose house draws the characters togethers; Laura Linney as Mary Ann Singleton, the ambitious Cleveland secretary; and many others - which gives the films the same constancy as the books.

What has changed to a great degree is the plot. Further Tales has always felt like the least successful of all six books to me: its plot - a survivor of the Jonestown massacre has to rescue her children from a not-dead Jim Jones, while (inter alia) a news anchor is kidnapped by Anna Madrigal - takes the degree of absurdity which the elastic nature of San Francisco seems to allow too far. There are logical holes in the plot, unsatisfactory twists and endings, and a bizarre, pointless jaunt to Russia, which one of the characters even concedes is 'drifty'.

The movie version adds some successful episodes - a funny run-in for Michael Tolliver at the Glory Holes and the return of dippy Connie Bradshaw - and there is the welcome reappearance of Anna Madrigal's ancient, crotchety, whorehouse-running mother, although she is despatched off-screen for no obvious reason other than as a pull at the heart-strings.

But what is added (quasi-incest), what is taken away (a queer-bashing of two key characters, originally written in to reflect the Milk-Moscone murders) and what is edited (dialogue is rewritten, losing the point), as well as what remains, all conspire to make the show unsatisfactory.

Maupin is co-credited as screenwriter, along with James Lecesne, and this made me wonder whether he had taken the opportunity almost to rewrite history/his story: I can't help but feel that there are aspects of the Further Tales book he must be unhappy with (the exigencies of a daily serial could not have helped), and the series is the perfect occasion to rectify these. That this rewriting keeps some of the madness is in fact beside the point: it is the ability to get it right the second time round which is interesting.

There are not many opportunities for writers to republish, as it were. Obviously, film scripts are a second bite of the cherry, if the original writer is engaged, which is rare. Some authors do rewrite without films, and even win awards: Peter Mattheissen's Shadow Country is three books rewritten into one and won the National Book Award last year. Stephen Sondheim regularly adds or removes songs as previews continue and plays are revived. And of course Shakespeare, as a jobbing playwright, went through several versions of his plays, to the extent that, thanks to directorial choices, Hamlet can end up a veritable tombola of lines.

The problem is clear: rewriting is inherently to concede that the first go was faulty. As much as the writer may feel this - and looking back on articles I've written, I would certainly change things - it is a matter of private pride or public reputation, or at least is perceived as such. Not many people could regularly republish because people would stop taking them seriously.

But I'm not sure rewriting is an admission of failure. Would we admire Philip Roth more if he said that the Human Stain could have done with a little more subtlety? Almost certainly, since this would not come off as weakness but as humility, an honest striving for perfection.

Of course, if you rewrite it and get it wrong the second time (as, I fear, with Further Tales) - well, perhaps third time isn't the charm.

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