The Days of Anna Madrigal
288 pages • Doubleday • January 30, 2014 [HB]
Christopher Bryant reviews
The Days of Anna Madrigal is the ninth and final of the Tales of the City novels. And on that note there is a collective gay tear because it is the most significant series in the literature of the post-liberation era, a lionhearted, optimistic ray of light that sees the world not only for its struggles but for its possibilities. It is, as the 92 year-old Mrs Madrigal says of her helpmeet Jake, “like a unicorn in a forest”. Whenever I read a Tales novel, I feel as if I am enveloped in a world that is warm and that protects. That is not because it is safe – there is no lack of danger or conflict – but because Maupin has the uncanny ability to the make the reader feel part of the family of characters at its heart.
Anna Madrigal is that hope and possibility incarnate. She presides over the series like a monarch and mother combined, and is quite simply the greatest trans character in the history of literature. This final book is her book, the story of her final days. “You could see them as a loss, or you could see them as a simplification,” she muses. “Anna chose to think of it as leaving like a lady.” In preparing for the end, she looks back to the beginning, and the event that made Andy Ramsey leave his home at the Blue Moon Lodge in Winnemucca to start on the journey that would lead him to his true self. In becoming Mrs Madrigal, “she married herself, in essence, so she would not be alone in her skin”. This final book leads toward the revelation of the catalyst that made this happen, as well as the real significance of the name Mrs Madrigal.
To help her complete her unfinished business, she returns to Winnemucca with Brian Hawkins, who is now 67, and his new wife. At the same time Jake Greenleaf, Brian’s daughter Shawna, Michael Tolliver and his husband Ben plan to go to the Burning Man festival in the Nevada Desert. Jake has built an “art car” for the Mutant Vehicles Parade, a pod designed for Mrs Madrigal in the shape of a Monarch butterfly – what else? – and that bears the words “Anna Madrigal – World’s Oldest Transgender Activist”. The Monarch, as Anna instructs Brian, only lives for two months, and the butterfly’s long migration is therefore achieved over many generations.
“They have two months,” said Anna. “That’s it. But some part of them must know that they’re part of this endless continuum, this … community after death. And even if they don’t know, we know, and that itself takes your breath away.”
It is a flawless metaphor for the character and also the activism that underlies the many stories Maupin has told over the course of the series. The journey has no end, it merely continues. It is our role to carry on and to maintain its progress.
There has always been a wealth of heart in Maupin’s writing, both in the Tales books and the equally wonderful Maybe the Moon and The Night Listener. The Days of Anna Madrigal is no exception. That said, I struggle with The New Generation, and find Ben and Shawna fairly uninteresting. There isn’t the same level of the internal conflict that makes the other characters engaging. Maupin knows that we are all capable of doing the wrong and the selfish thing, whether that is because we are protecting ourselves, or lashing out in a moment of anger. That is what the flashback to the youth of Andy Ramsey is all about. It’s what makes characters like Michael, Mary-Ann, Brian, and Anna Madrigal so real. The New Generation seem to lack that dimension. Also, Michael spends far too much time thinking he is lucky to have the younger, attractive Ben, when really it is the other way around. I find it hard to be interested in Shawna’s success as a sex blogger, and as the author of a novel told in the form of text messages. Perhaps the fault is mine, and it’s just a generational problem. Nevertheless, the transman Jake Greenleaf is the exception. He is the most interesting and engaging of The New Generation. His conflict, his questioning, and the peace that Anna brings him, make for a rounded character full of life.
The Days of Anna Madrigal is an ending, yes, but it also an opening out, a step toward the future that is told with heart, hope and compassion. It is the end of a series that we are lucky to have had told, and that will no doubt continue to entrance and provoke for generations.