Thursday, July 30, 2009

Breaking My Heart with Armistead Maupin

I hate endings and saying "goodbye." For some reason, I've only just begun to acknowledge this fact, despite knowing perfectly well that one of the many reasons I don't read one book at a time is that I then don't reach the end of any particular book as quickly as I would if I did. I was the child who if taken to a movie or musical would (I'm sure) annoy fellow audience members around me with the loud question, "It's not almost over yet, is it?"

However, this fact seems to have done nothing but surprise me time and again throughout my life. I was the kid who had not one but one-and-a-half feet out my high school's door the whole time I was there, bored to tears and more eager than any of my friends to get off to college. Nonetheless, I found myself getting terribly choked up at my graduation ceremony. At the end of my first year in college, I had all my final exams on the last two days of exams with something like 5 days between the end of classes and my first exam (what with reading days and all). I chose to go home for 5 days and come back, thus missing most of my friends' departures. When I got back, my roommate and I were practically the only ones left in the dorm. You would have thought all our friends had been banished to Siberia the way I reacted.

My professional life hasn't been much better. I have been shocked, dismayed, and saddened every. single. time. some colleague of whom I am awfully fond has announced he or she is leaving for greener pastures. In fact, at my first job in the corporate world, where turnover was incredibly high, after a year, I decided I'd better hurry up and get another job so I could be the one leaving instead of watching someone else I loved walk out that door one afternoon for the last time. What I always hated the most were early retirees. I mean, when you're twenty-or-thirtysomething, you think they're a "done deal." Surely, you will be leaving before the champagne corks are flying in honor of this person who has been your great mentor. Then they go and announce at age 59 or something that they're retiring (this happened a lot in the library world, for some reason).

I'm obviously not someone who is extremely fond of visiting old stomping grounds. I'm someone who cried every time she moved out of an old apartment, no matter how wonderful and exciting my new apartment was. Hell, I cried when boyfriends moved out of their old apartments. Many of you know that I broke down in tears on my first few trips back to Connecticut after moving to Pennsylvania.

All right. This probably all makes at least some sense in the real world, even to those who are busy labeling me "emotional freak". However, does it make any sense at all when we're not in the real world? When we're talking about books? Books should not bring waves of nostalgia over someone the way visiting her first apartment does, should they? Yet, waves of nostalgia are what I was recently feeling. That's because I picked up Armistead Maupin.

The novel I am writing is one I hope will be the first in a series of novels that I have carelessly been describing as a cross between Jan Karon and Armistead Maupin. I use the word "carelessly," because I would never advise a marketing campaign based on this description. The series would die before the first manuscript was even typeset. How absurd to suggest combining a "cozy read," gently humorous writer with a caustically witty writer who was the first to deal with such things as AIDS in his farcical fiction. For those of you who have never read either of these authors, think "James Herriot meets Dorothy Parker." Good writers, all, in their own rights, but you don't mix hot chocolate with martinis (at least, not if you want something palatable).

Anyway, it's not easy, since the series exists mostly in my head at this point, to explain why I describe it thus. It's much easier to talk about being on the other side of halfway through the first draft of the first novel (which feels so good) and deciding I'd better go back to both these authors (while I'm at it, maybe I ought to go back to Herriot and Parker, too) for a little inspiration and a lot of "how-to." I haven't (you know, hating endings and all) finished either Karon's Mitford series nor Maupin's Barbary Lane (Tales of the City) series. I decided I ought to read what I haven't read and then go back and reread what I have.

And here's where nostalgia crept its way into the forefront of my brain. I picked up Maupin's Sure of You (the final volume in the series until the recently-published Michael Tolliver Lives). All the key Maupin ingredients are here: eccentric, mistake-making, lovable characters; a setting (San Francisco) that is as much a character as the characters themselves; bizarre circumstances; laugh-out-loud moments; etc. However, they are the same characters now more than a decade older than they were when we first met them (so young and looking towards the future) in Tales of the City. They've been through so much together (moves from the bungalow on Barbary Lane where they all first met, lost loves, marriages, deaths...). In real life, when I talk with friends I've known for ten or twenty years, I don't even feel the pangs I felt while reading this book. I do, however, when I find real-life friends seemingly headed towards making the same mistakes they made a decade earlier, as my Maupin friends do, want to ask them, "Didn't you learn the first time?" I never do, though, and I wouldn't if I'd known and loved any of Maupin's characters twenty years ago, either. When I was about halfway through the book, I decided I was going to have to pretend I'd never met any of these characters, that I hadn't read all the history, hadn't carried all that baggage with them. It was the only way I managed to make it through the book without doing more damage to my heart, which is already over-patched and super-glued to its limit.

That's Maupin's brilliance, of course. He knows exactly how to trace the passage of time (both on a personal and a societal level) through his characters. However, these are books. They are not real life. I can go back and reread Tales of the City anytime I want. It isn't like that first corporate job of mine, a company that was sold, located in a building that has probably long-since been renovated and occupied by unfamiliar companies. Many of those former colleagues are completely lost to me; others don't remember the specifics of that time that I do. It all exists only in my imagination at this point. Wait a minute. Isn't that where Maupin's characters and setting exist as well?

Perhaps my nostalgia over books is not so odd after all. Besides, when we're talking about books, we're not only talking about the characters and settings and plots within the books themselves; we're also talking about the time and the place in which we read them. Sometimes we're talking about the people who introduced them to us. I first read Maupin only 2 years ago, but my sister suggested I read him about twenty years ago, a suggestion I never forgot. A lot has happened in those two years, though. We were still living in Connecticut at the time, and I remember reading them in my favorite chair in my favorite room in that house when I wasn't reading them on airplanes while traveling for business. I was in the midst of my "perfect job" at "the perfect company" with "the perfect boss." We were anticipating a move that had me both excited and terrified. The friend who lent me the books was someone I saw all the time. We still made frequent visits into NY and saw many of our dear friends from seminary. Little did I know that within a year, my "perfect boss" would be announcing that she was leaving the company. I'd still be having trouble establishing a "favorite reading room" in my new home, a place that still felt quite alien to me. Within two years, I'd be laid off from "the perfect company." My friend who lent me the books would become someone I see maybe once a year. Our friends from seminary would be dispersed all over the world.

Maybe it's no wonder I feel these pangs of nostalgia. But my God, what's going to happen when I return to Jan Karon, someone I first read over ten years ago? I guess I just need to brace myself for the moment, the way I do when I pretend not to be saying goodbye to someone who is going off to live in Texas or South Africa or Ireland, someone it's highly likely I may never see again. Meanwhile, I can take comfort in the fact that these are books. They still exist as they did when I first "met" them, and I can relive moments with them over and over again. My interpretation of them may change, but the same words I first read are still there, no matter how many years it's been, which is what makes them oh-so-different from my "real-life" friends, like the one with whom I dreamed about moving to San Francisco, back when we were both living in North Carolina. He made it. I never did, and San Francisco wouldn't be San Francisco to me without his presence there, nor would it be without Maupin's.


litlove said...

I hope you're going to put your exquisite sensitivity about nostalgia into your own novel, Emily. That will surely make it a bestseller! And I agree that books are worlds as touching and real and vibrant sometimes as reality. When we're children, stories often crystallise for us some truth or understanding that we were unable to process without them, so they really do contribute to our existence and our identity!

Stefanie said...

What a beautiful post! I dunno, I've cried over things that have happened in real life, but I have sobbed over books as though the world was about to end and then mooned over them for days afterwards. so I can completely understand how you feel about Maupin. Good luck with reading Karon!

Emily Barton said...

Stef, you too? Well, yet again, I find myself in excellent company!