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The best books about San Francisco

The best books about San Francisco

There’s more to a Bay Area reading list than “Tales of the City”

There’s more to a Bay Area reading list than “Tales of the City”

Tim Martin | July 31st 2018

Should we start with “Tales of the City”? For a certain generation of readers, and for many who have come to them since, Armistead Maupin’s zillion-selling sequence of intertwined vignettes, starting in the hippy-dippy seventies and continuing through the AIDS epidemic to the early 21st century, are the quintessential San Francisco novels. Written with cheery élan and propelled by a humming engine of absurd coincidence, they’re the literary equivalent of a telenovela or a comforting Netflix binge – which, not coincidentally, is what they’re about to become. A leaf through the first few should let you know on which side of the Dickensian charm/banal tripe divide you fall. While you consider it, here are a few more options for your Bay Area reading list.

Rebecca Solnit, Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas
Written in 2010 and subsequently imitated/ripped off by who knows how many cunning exercises in data visualisation, this fabulous atlas of San Franciscan culture is both light-hearted and intensely serious-minded. Driven by Solnit’s searching intellect and backed up by a team of writers and illustrators, it maps the conscious and unconscious life of the area in wild and Borgesian fashion: butterfly habitats are plotted next to queer public spaces, artisan food producers mapped onto sites of toxic pollution and radioactivity, lairs of the military-industrial complex doodled alongside the peacenik landscape of Zen America. It’s a mind-expanding delight.

Thom Gunn, Collected Poems
Reading the poetry that Thom Gunn wrote after emigrating to San Francisco in the late 1950s, you can feel delighted question marks pop into existence over your head: wait, this guy was English? A contemporary of Philip Larkin? In cracklingly alert and learned poems, Gunn caught the echo of an enthusiastic life in the gay and bohemian scenes of San Francisco: “Moly” (1971) sprung from his experiences with LSD, while the searing collection “The Man with Night Sweats” (1992) memorialised friends lost to AIDS. Everywhere in the verse you glimpse the poet’s adopted city: buses that “heave uphill through drizzling fog”, or night in a taxi, with “the dispatcher’s / litany of addresses, / China Basin to Twin Peaks / Harrison Street to the Ocean”.

William Gibson, Virtual Light
Written in 1993 and set in 2006, this science-fictional vision of San Francisco imagines a future where corporate elites dominate the world’s wealth, the people are fixated by reality TV and enslaved to the gig economy, private-security rentacops fly drones and everyone’s banging on about virtual reality. Imagine that, huh? Actually, “Virtual Light” is considerably more cyberpunk-weird than this summary makes it sound: it’s a wild and dazzling chase through a noirish city devastated by earthquake, where a vast shantytown built on the Bay Bridge creaks above the water and no one is what they seem.

Theodora Kroeber, Ishi in Two Worlds
Here’s an odd one: the record of the life of Ishi, the last surviving member of his Native American tribe, who walked out of the desert and into Southern California in 1911 and was befriended/adopted, not entirely altruistically, by anthropologists from the University of Berkeley’s San Francisco campus. This famous account was written half a century later by the anthropologist Theodora Kroeber, who never met Ishi but whose husband Alfred lived and worked with him. All of which would seem to bring it closer to a novel than the anthropological document it purports to be, but its image of a man out of time, cast adrift in a San Francisco that is as strange to him as another planet, still refuses to fade from the mind. It’s a book in which two wildly distinct visions of America collide, but, reading it today, it also feels like one that casts a long shadow on the the speculative fiction of the period – not least the fables of exile and estrangement devised by the late Ursula Le Guin, the Kroebers’ daughter.

Frank Norris, McTeague
Seen through the telescope of history, “McTeague” is a tough book to recommend. Published in 1899, one of several works frantically cranked out by a writer who died at 32, it’s the sort of novel that you can imagine inciting disturbances on university campuses today. It tells its story of poor lowlives in a gruesome tone of de haut en bas, much of its plot revolves around men conquering and subjugating women, there’s an episode of hair-raising antisemitic caricature – in fact, to quote Molesworth, the whole business is unspeakably sordid. So why the hell is “McTeague” so readable? Perhaps because it has the headlong plotting and hectic emotional tone of opera – love triangles! lottery wins! murder! pursuit! revenge! – perhaps because Norris writes with such beady-eyed intensity about the vanished street life of the city. Who knows. Not many books about the city are this hateable, or, I dare say, as grimly compelling.

Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
If you’ve got this far down the list, you may be wondering when all the drugs and hippies were going to arrive. A round of applause, then, for Wolfe’s spirited non-fiction account of the sixties psychedelic movement centred around Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters, who went from the Haight-Ashbury to the East Coast in a blur of LSD sparkles, mystic vibes, jail sentences and furious arguments. With psychedelics beginning to creep back into scientific orthodoxy, this is a fascinating look at just how weird things got last time.

Honourable mention: Vikram Seth, The Golden Gate
Long before his world-conquering doorstop “A Suitable Boy”, Vikram Seth made his debut with this deft and sarcastic novel of the early-eighties yuppie tech scene – one that just happens to be wholly composed of sonnets in iambic tetrameter modelled after Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin”. Yes, well, quite. There are only a handful of decent verse novels out there, but this is definitely one: finally balanced between reverie and self-satire, it’s a treat from rhyming contents page onwards.