Friday, June 22, 2007

Tolliver Always

2007 has been a pretty good year for gay fiction, with a number of important (to me, anyway) writers putting out new work: Neil Bartlett’s Skin Lane, Emma Donoghue’s Landing, Samuel Delany’s Dark Reflections, Sarah Schulman’s The Child (which I haven’t seen yet). In the past week I’ve read two new novels that update established characters, long-awaited by their fans (including me).

According to several reports I’ve seen, Armistead Maupin denies that Michael Tolliver Lives is a new installment of his Tales of the City series, but I haven’t seen his rationale. It would almost have to be hairsplitting, maybe based on the switch from third to first-person narration that has characterized his books since Maybe the Moon. So, as the title suggests, Michael “Mouse” Tolliver is the viewpoint character, but we learn what’s up with everyone else, though not everyone makes an appearance. Of all the characters Michael has most in common with his creator – Southern boy relocated to San Francisco, has a new younger husband – so at times I wondered whether the voice was that of Mouse or Armistead. But don’t forget the differences: Michael’s a PWA and Armistead is not, Michael is fifty-six (my age) and Armistead is half a decade older, Armistead is an internationally known writer and Michael’s a nurseryman and gardener.

The book is sexier than its predecessors, though Maupin’s been moving in that direction all along. Remember that the series began to appear in the 1970s, and it was bold enough back then to have unapologetically, openly gay characters in fiction from mainstream publishers like Harper, let alone the San Francisco Chronicle, where Tales first appeared as a serial. Maupin is still tamer in that respect than many gay male writers; he’s simply matter-of-fact about sex, as he is about everything else, which I appreciate. I noticed from some of the customer reviews on, though, that not everyone does.

If you’re familiar with the series, you’ll want to read Michael Tolliver Lives, so if you haven’t read it yet I won’t summarize it. Suffice it to say that for me, anyway, Maupin did an excellent job of returning to characters he hadn’t written about since Sure of You appeared in 1989. Michael really feels like an acquaintance I’d lost touch with for a couple of decades – he’s changed with age but he’s recognizably the same person. Those of us who followed the series in its heyday came to feel about each book as the latest batch of news from beloved friends. (Alison Bechdel’s Dykes To Watch Out For comic strip, which has been running since the early 1980s, has the same effect on people.) I’ve never been sure whether Maupin counted as a “great” writer, whatever that means, though both Christopher Isherwood and Edmund White have compared him to Dickens. He makes it look so easy, doing what he does, that it’s easy not to take him seriously enough. (Just how much of a writer he is, is shown by his film projects. I finally saw The Night Listener last week, which he co-wrote and co-produced, and it was a turkey, far inferior to the book.) Maupin has created a world that a great many people want to visit, and if you haven’t done so yet, you should.

Then there’s Nicola Griffith’s Always, her third novel about Aud Torvingen, five years after its predecessor Stay. Griffith’s two science fiction novels, Ammonite and Slow River didn’t impress me (though lately I’m tempted to reread them and see how they look to me now), but The Blue Place, which introduced Torvingen, blew me away. For a while I reread it at least every year. It’s a strange, dark, very violent book, and Torvingen – a six foot tall Norwegian lesbian ex-cop resident in Atlanta – is a remarkable creation.

What I found most compelling about The Blue Place was the sensuousness of its writing. Aud (who, like Michael Tolliver, narrates) attends to everything she does – playing pool, having sex, working wood, killing a man with a flashlight, flying over the North Atlantic – with total concentration, and tells us about it with You Are There vividness.

I had been working for the last two weeks on a chair of English pine. My hand slid down the wood, zzst zzst, and buttery shavings curled to the floor. Zzst zzst. English pine is darker than its acid-yellow American cousin, so rich it makes you want to reach out and put it in your mouth. The grain is finer, denser, a little less spongy, such a joy to plane that when I first started working it I often took off more than I needed for the sheer pleasure of watching the blade slide through it. Zzst zzst. The shavings piled up. Sunlight, shivered and greened by the foliage outside the window, warmed the heaps, filling the room with the simple, uncomplicated scent of fresh-cut pie. Zzst zzst. I could feel my face relaxing, the muscles around my ribs letting go.

Always interlaces two stories in alternating chapters. In one, Aud goes to Seattle with her coffee-vending friend Dornan, to meet her diplomat mother and her mother’s new husband, and to tend to properties there that were left her by her late father. Though it’s supposed to be a short visit, she immediately begins digging into the city, looking for buried bodies – no particular reason, it’s just Aud’s way. In no time at all Aud finds that there’s hanky panky around a warehouse she owns, being used by a film company to shoot a TV pilot. Working at the shoot is Victoria “Kick” Kuiper, former stuntwoman and caterer extraordinaire, with a muscular body to die for.

The other story begins the previous year in Atlanta. Aud had decided to teach a class in self defense for women, in the basement of a New Age bookstore. She drew a varied crew of students, and struggled to get them to break through their Southern feminine conditioning and learn to get angry, to hit back. Much of this thread consists of lectures by Aud, Socratic dialogues with her students. We learn quickly in the Seattle thread that something had gone seriously wrong with this group, but just what is withheld until the end of the book. (It’s not much of a surprise.) Aud feels that she’s failed, a factor in her running away to Seattle.

Aud is often accused, even by her creator, of being cut off, detached, isolated. I’ve never been able to see this. A friend once told me that she’d been critical of my own defenses, until she realized how vulnerable I am. Of course. Aud’s vulnerability is deeply buried under her own formidable defenses, but Griffith gives us glimpses. I have the impression that some people think one should simply go out and (figuratively) lie in traffic, because being run over – or running over other people - builds character. Ever since I figured it out, I knew that I had better things to do with my life than get hurt simply for the sake of proving my vulnerability. I never take dares. Aud seems to me very connected to other people, and she takes those connections seriously.

Her most strained relationship is with her mother, whom we’ve met only over the phone in the previous books. (Aud hasn’t seen her in person either for many years.) I don’t believe that Aud sees how much she is like her own idea of her mother: formidable, coldly rational, emotionally controlled. So it’s a bit of a surprise, to Aud and to the reader, when we meet Else Torvingen in person, that she turns out to be a good deal warmer and more likable than Aud’s portrait of her. (She’s also a fan of Hothead Paisan.) It may be that her relationship with her new husband has changed her, but I suspect that years and distance have built up a caricature in Aud’s mind. The images, the stereotypes we construct of people, have as much to do with our own wishful thinking—what we want them to be—as with the people themselves. (In my own mind, for example, my 4’11” mother is still twelve feet tall, as she seemed when I was a child.)

Always is a vast book, almost 500 pages of small type, yet it moves along briskly. It’s packed with lore about martial arts (Griffith is a martial artist herself, who taught women’s self-defense classes in England before she moved to the US), cooking, the politics of real estate development, art, woodworking, cooking for people on chemotherapy, multiple sclerosis (Griffith was diagnosed in 1993), and more. It pulled me along as if Aud herself had a grip on my wrist and were making me keep up with her long-legged stride. Fortunately I could close the book when I just couldn’t keep up anymore, but I always returned for more as soon as I could. Griffith says there will be more about Aud; as with Michael Tolliver, I’m looking forward to it.