‘These novels are as difficult to put down as a dish of pistachios. The reader starts the old childhood game of “Just one more chapter and I’ll turn out the light,” only to look up and discover it’s after midnight.’
-Chris Solomon, Los Angeles Times Book Review of the Tales of the City series
Melodrama is an often unfairly maligned genre.
Much like camp and other forms of theatricality and excess, it’s often dismissed as ‘not serious’ and ‘silly.’ Similarly, it’s frequently gendered or divided by sexuality: ‘melodrama’ is rarely mentioned in association with the ‘serious heterosexual male artists’. Oh sure, there’s a lot of it, regardless of medium and target audience, that is shrill, ham-fisted, wildly contrived nonsense; maudlin attempts to wring emotions from the laziest, sloppiest of circumstances. One of the key failings is how the ersatz earnestness of such stories is actually just tired cynicism.
The recipe is fairly simple: find the easiest emotions to exploit (tragedy, particularly young love tragedy, is a good one), throw in a few twists and turns to keep the reader trundling along, all while offering the literary equivalent to empty calories. No insight is gained, no expanded worldview is delivered, just the cynical manipulation of emotions. For melodrama to excel, it must be earnest and heartfelt, but it helps to have a sense of humor and to acknowledge the hardships of the outside world in a fashion that is greater than moving from Plot Point A to Plot Point B.
One of my favorite authors, Zoë Heller once remarked the point of literature was for the reader to engage with viewpoints that may be unpleasant and contradictory, with insight being preferable to amiability. While I agree with her greater point of how literature shouldn’t be judged based on the likability of a story or a character, there is something to be said about wanting to spend time with a collection of flawed, albeit generally nice people when one reads a novel.
Tales of the City manages a rare feat: it’s finely wrought melodrama, humorous and serious enough to keep the outlandish storyline grounded in some semblance of reality, all while populated with a collection of quirky, generally likable oddball characters. It’s a great, sprawling soap opera, a bisexual mashup of Charles Dickens and a literary Melrose Place. It’s a fascinating historical artifact, exploring how the hedonistic 70s gave way to the painful realities of the 80s and the inevitable gentrification in the new millennium. Above all, it’s a deeply heartfelt love letter to San Francisco: a haven for all the misfits, particularly queer people.
This nine volume series of novels began as a weekly serial in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1976, and the final novel, The Days of Anna Madrigal, was released early this year. The first three novels were adapted into wildly popular and controversial television miniseries. The novels and the television adaptations captured international attention and acclaim, and Tales of the City is lauded not only as a milestone in American queer literature, but a milestone in contemporary American literature, period. What explains its last appeal across the decades?
In this semi-regular feature, I will read and review all nine volumes of the Tales of the City series, along with the three TV miniseries adaptations. Given there are nine books, I will be doing the reviews in sets of three: Pre-AIDS, Post-AIDS, and Millennial.
So, back to the city we go…
Photo above: Laura Linney as Mary Ann Singleton in Tales of the City (1993).