Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 22 January 2009

No one belongs here more than you


764-1 The first thing I knew about Miranda July, even before I learned her name, was that she owned a fridge only I thought it was a whiteboard till she told me it wasn’t. Very shortly after that I learned that she owned a cooker and a white hand which led me to believe that the rest of her was probably white too, a fact I have since confirmed, at least the bits of her I have seen without clothes on have been white and one can reasonably assume from that that her skin colour is much the same all over. After learning those first three things I discovered she was an author. I had already seen evidence that she could write, legibly – perhaps I should have mentioned that earlier – but lots of people who can write never find they have enough to say about life to fill a 201 page book with it. She had and it was available in two colours, yellow and pink. I’ve since discovered there’s a green variety out there too. Eventually I bought the pink variety (because it was cheap) and read it over the course of a rather depressing couple of weeks. Some people might tell you the book is unputdownable but it is not. It is a book that you want to pick up again, at least I did, and I might have read it in a couple of sittings had I been feeling better, but we’ll never know now.

Perhaps I should explain about the fridge.

A while ago, as one does, I stumbled across a website. Perhaps I should first say that there are so many websites on the go that to come up with a unique-looking one deserves a round of applause. And that was what caught my eye about this website. It was handwritten. All of it. Here are the first two screens.




Now, be honest, would that not pique your curiosity? I remember showing it to my wife and saying: “Hey, look at this,” or something of that ilk.

Eventually the truth comes out as these things do and this was nothing more than a marketing ploy but I didn’t mind too much because I’d been entertained for five minutes. That said I still never bought the book. So, although she may or may not have been a decent enough writer, I had also determined she wasn’t, at least in my case, the most effective marketer.

Jump forward about a year and I read a short story by Ani Smith about someone wanting to have sex with someone else called Miranda July. Of course by this time I had completely forgotten about the fridge and I just thought: What a cool name – I wonder if she made it up? And so I googled her and, what do you know, I came across that damn cooker again. You see, she’d been using the fridge as a whiteboard but it was taking her twenty minutes to clean the thing between ‘screens’ and so wisely she switched to her cooker which, although the surface area was much smaller, could at least be wiped with ease.




Now, since that time I’ve read a lot more of Ani’s stuff and these days I’d take a story like that with a pinch of salt but at the time if I’m honest I was probably half-curious to see what kind of woman she fancied. What I found was a woman I’m not sure I could fancy but one that certainly deserved further investigation and, let’s face it, looks are neither here nor there really.

The New York Times movie section had this to say about her recently:

In the indie universe, Miranda July is a polarizing force. To her near-fanatical followers, she is the undisputed high priestess of the DIY art revolution—a bold, multitalented 33-year-old sprite with a refreshing, almost childlike sincerity who seems to have sprung fully formed from the evergreen forests of Portland, Oregon.

And it goes on about her art projects and her film and finally mentions the book before skipping right over it. But it did say something about what’s made her the kind of person she is today:

Much of her childhood was spent listening to the rants of “borderline crazy writers,” along with disturbing seventies-style confessions from both parents about their personal and marital challenges. “I wasn’t neglected at all, but my parents didn’t have the best boundaries in the world,” says July, who dropped out of college at 20 and fled to Oregon. “I was privy to pretty much everything about their lives.” She pauses. “I think that’s definitely where my desire to be the one who understands comes from.”

We are what we eat, so my mother always told me, so I guess we are what we’re force-fed too. That single paragraph goes so far towards an understanding of July’s stories which are both voyeuristic and confessional, often both at the same time. Those of a sensitive nature may want to stop reading here, at least those of you who don’t like talking about sex, because there is a lot of sex in and around these stories. That said it’s a far cry from either erotica or pornography; sex is a part of life and July includes it often quite dispassionately, if truth be told.

Some of the stories are very short, slices of life – ‘story fragments’ one reviewer called them (maybe they’d never heard of flash fiction) – and it’s ‘The Moves’, one of the shortest at only a page and a half, that is the most striking. In it a daughter tells of her dying father passing on to her his secret hand moves for bringing a woman to orgasm. I get it. Knowledge is a precious commodity. What’s he going to do, write a book? This goes back to the old oral traditions. You have something to pass on to future generations, then you tell ‘em about it and you show ‘em what to do. The girl in the story takes the knowledge in the spirit in which it is given. She is not attracted to women and so can’t envision needing the knowledge herself but she is open enough to imagine that her daughter – if she ever has one – might turn out to be gay and the information would be of benefit to her. Irrespective of that one could still see these instructions being passed down from generation to generation till needed. It’s particularly interesting that she doesn’t talk about passing these onto a son.

Someone has made a wee film based on the story and posted it at YouTube. It’s an interesting approach to the subject.

Not all the stories are about sex. It crops up if and when it should and disappears from the page easily enough. She is certainly a love-her-or-loathe-her kind of writer. Let me illustrate this with two reviews culled from Amazon:

By W. Etter "kind of a big deal" (portland, or)

it's hard to believe all the tragic, tender, hilarious, moments in this book came from one author. i want a "being john malkovich" door into miranda july's mind. i cannot say enough about this book. i had to give it a hug when i was done.

i want everyone i love to read it. i want the mailman to read it. i want to stand in front of the display at powell's and tell people they don't need to look any further - this is the book they've been waiting for. we all have. thank you miranda july.

By budababy (Los Angeles, CA, USA)

I seem to be the only person who didn't like this book. I didn't like it. A lot. In fact, it is the first book I have ever returned to Amazon, just because I disliked it so much. The writer is clearly very intelligent, but she has such smug disdain for her less intelligent narrators and characters. The arrogance was too much for me. Great for her to be published in the best mags and win awards. You all can have her stories. I can't take them.

July is a modern storyteller and doesn’t burden her readers with a lot of details and so, if you miss a line or two, you might have missed a key point. She’s also one of those storytellers who often gets labelled ‘quirky’, a description one needs to approach with caution because it can often mean ‘doesn’t fit anywhere else’. I’ve also heard her called ‘the voice of a generation’, which one I’m not sure. I think X and Y have been used up so I suppose she must be Z and, yes, I’m being facetious.

The people contained within these sixteen stories are not what one might call ‘fully integrated members of society’. They exist on the fringes, some physically, most mentally. Some reach out to the world, others stare at it wonderingly.

‘The Boy from Lam Kien’ opens with these lines:

I took twenty-seven steps and then I stopped. Next to the juniper bush. Lam Kien Beauty Salon was before me, and my front door was behind me. It’s not agoraphobia, because I am not actually afraid of leaving the house. The fear hits about twenty-seven steps away from the house, right about the juniper bush.

What kind of woman is this? July gives us a brief tour of this woman’s house. How she does this is quite clever. A young boy emerges from the beauty salon and the two strike up an awkward conversation. He asks to see her room and she lets him and it is though the boy’s innocent eyes we now perceive the woman. In the bedroom, as kids do, he flops down on her bed and wants to know why she doesn’t have bunk beds.

You should get bunk beds, then you would have more room, he said while pretending to be sucked down into the narrow space between the bed and the wall.

What would I do with more room?

He now stood, impossibly, between the bed and the wall. A place I had never thought to clean.

You don’t want bunk beds?

Well, I just don’t see the need for them.

You can have a friend spend the night.

But this bed is so big, they can sleep in here with me?

He gave me a long, strange stare, and my mind bent like a spoon. Why would anyone want to sleep in the bed with me when they could have their own bunk, like on a ship?

And in this way the boy goes through the place commenting on her life. Eventually he decides it’s time to go and leaves without thinking to say goodbye. I had to reread this one because I got to the end and wondered what had happened. There is something quite magic about this little story. I mean magic as in conjuring. July has you looking one place when all the action is somewhere else. She describes in detail how the boy picks up and carries a book and so you almost forget what the book was about.

Let’s mention a few of the other stories.

In the story ‘Birthmark’, we are presented with a young woman's description of life with – and (strangely enough) worse, without – a facial birthmark. Here is where July's sense of empathy and contradiction shine through:

Have you ever wanted something very badly, then gotten it? Then you know that winning is many things, but it is never the thing you thought it would be. Poor people who win the lottery do not become rich people. They become poor people who won the lottery. She was a very beautiful person who was missing something very ugly.

Happiness is getting everything you ever wanted in this life. Okay, maybe not everything but everyone has something that they feel if they had it (or didn’t have it) that would be the one thing that would make all the other minor inconveniences life throws at us bearable. This could be an allegory. It could also be a fairytale.

In ‘Swim Team’ a woman volunteers to coach a swimming team – made up of old people – in her apartment and without the aid of water (although she does provide them with bowls when they need to practice breathing exercises!)

I was the kind of coach who stands by the side of the pool instead of getting in, but I was busy every moment. If I can say this without being immodest, I was instead of the water.

In ‘This Person’ a woman discovers her life has been just a rehearsal when she finds ‘a long rambling phone message in which every person this person has ever known is talking on a speakerphone and they are all saying, You have passed the test, it was all just a test.’

While in the tale 'Something That Needs Nothing', the female protagonist, defined by a deep, unrequited love for her best girlfriend from school, finally achieves the sexual attention she craves – but only for a week, and only when she wears a plastic wig, dresses like a stripper and pretends to be someone else.

On the whole this is a charming book. It is not without its faults and the main one is that you feel that each character is really a proxy for the one true character who is definitely a female and quite probably July herself. Her response to this? “The stories aren't technically autobiographical, but in an emotional sense, they are,” she’s reported to have said. Personally that didn’t trouble me. I’m sure if I’d come across the stories one at a time in the magazines in which they were originally published such as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Harper's I’d have been delighted with it. Some of the stories were funny, some sad and one or two nothing less than tragic. And, yes, a few tried too hard. That’s the thing about ‘quirky’ – once you realise you are and start trying to be well that’s never quite the same.

Her characters are nameless and placeless, even the protagonists with names and the places we’re told about. The names don’t matter and the places are unimportant. Some of it is clearly small town America. Most of it would work in Saltcoats or Milton Keynes.

One thing you need to be careful about here and that is not to judge the collection by the state of its characters most of which are lacking something. This book is not perfect but perfection lacks character if you ask me.


miranda070521_198 Miranda July is a filmmaker, writer, and performing artist. Her work has been presented at sites such as The Kitchen, the Guggenheim Museum, and in two Whitney Biennials. She wrote, directed, and starred in her first feature-length film, Me and You and Everyone We Know, which received a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the Caméra d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. July's short fiction has been published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Harper's, and Zoetrope. No One Belongs Here More Than You has won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. She has released two albums on the record label Kill Rock Stars. Raised in Berkeley, California, she lives in Los Angeles.

Oh, and her real name is actually Miranda Grossinger.


Rachel Fox said...

I loved the 'Me and you' film. I almost wanted to hate it (it's so kooky it's almost painful, so look at the funny shoes) but I couldn''s just a joy. I liked a story of hers I read in the paper a while back too and keep meaning to get hold of a...what do you call those old paper things...oh yes, a book. I think she's very talented.

drodbar said...

She sounds like an interesting character, doesn't she?

Jim Murdoch said...

Rachel, well I can recommend the pink one.

And, drodbar, yes, I'd say interesting and a half.

Frances said...

Hi Jim,

I just came across your blog and really enjoyed your post on Miranda July. I, too, was compelled by the fridge and the oven white boards on her website and noticed that she had changed from one to the other - but, haven't bought the book.

Someone I admire greatly once told me that I reminded them of Miranda July and while she is a million times more talented than I am, I took that as a huge compliment.

Having seen her film many times I rate her highly as a filmmaker and after reading some excerpts from her book on your post I think I would also like to read her books.
Thanks and I'll keep on dropping by!

Catherine @ Sharp Words said...

She and her stories sound fascinating. But I don't know if I'd want to read them.
Does that sound strange?

Totalfeckineejit said...

Jayney mac, I'd forgotten bout all dat cooker/fridge stuff by yer wan.I can't even remember how I first came across it, but I did think it was totally brilliant and original.saw ye on Dave King's blog and popped across ta have a look - glad i did now.I didn't buy yer wans book(that was d'inevitable punchline)but I must go back and checkit out again, maybe even buy it this time. Tis meant ta be!

Halahblue said...

I've wanted to read this book for quite a while. Now I am going to buy it, somewhere.

Thank you. This post was fantastic. Adding you to GReader right now.

Paul said...

Having read your review I'm not sure I need to read the book, Jim. 'Quirky' is not one of my favourite things and does tend to have a short lifespan. 'Fashionable' is another adjective that might be appropriate in this case. Thanks for the comprehensive and careful review. (I wonder if I sent you a copy of my book if you would review it, that would be a thrill, although a little scary.)

Dick said...

The film pissed me off so maybe I'll need to access the treewear to give her a proper chance.

Jim Murdoch said...

Frances, Dick, I'm really at a disadvantage here in that I've not seen her film. I suppose I could have had a look on YouTube for a clip but my reviews can be a bit long-winded at the best of times so I decided to stick with the book. I don't think I'd rush out to find a copy either way even though I did enjoy the book at least not for a while.

As for your point of view, Catherine, no, I do get where you're coming from. I can imagine the film director David Lynch getting a similar response from some people. It's not a perfect collection and I did enjoy some stories more than others. All of them have an uncomfortable edge. You want to go and find something light and fluffy to read afterwards.

Totalfeckineejit, I'm not sure it was inevitable that I would buy the book but there were a few things that conspired to make me consider it. On the whole I'm glad I did.

Diana, glad you found me and glad you appreciated the review.

And, Paul, 'quirky' is, of course, one of those words that I guess means different things to different people. I think of Tori Amos as 'quirky' but some people just think of her as odd. It's probably a word that's used too often and has become devalued. Perhaps I should have said she has a distinct and personal style. I mean one wouldn't call Beckett 'quirky' – well I wouldn't.

As for your book, drop me an e-mail and tell me a wee bit about it.

Roberta said...

She -is- quirky, I think. Decidedly so. But the problem with that descriptor is similarly to what you have noted, 'quirky' can be quite a relegatory, throwaway sort of a word.

I think she does something interesting in the stories in that the style's so (subtly?) self-conscious, but for the most part (I can only remember one that I thought didn't particularly work) that she does generally make it work for her.

But yeah, sort of impressive that the gentle oddness of the stories felt so utterly deliberate, yet not forced.

I'd really like to see her perform. She's so engaging.

Jim Murdoch said...

I see you like Regina Spektor, Roberta. I'd call her 'quirky' too. My daughter is a great fan. I suppose it depends on what you have been introduced to as 'quirky' that inclines you to think of it as a good or a bad thing. Just to say 'quirky' = 'odd' doesn't really do it justice, does it?

Catherine @ Sharp Words said...

Jim, you're bang on - I have a similar reaction to David Lynch and David Cronenburg films!

Conda V. Douglas said...

I've seen this before--very clever, very original, very fun!

Jim Murdoch said...

I thought so too, Conda, but I bet you never bought the book either.

McGuire said...

I came across this site before too, by chance, a long time ago, I found out a little bit about Miranda but I kind of gave up after that but glad you brought her back to my attention.

She writes in a cute minimalist style which I quite like but I'm sure she is no doubt guilty of now parodying herself. But all repetition could be accused of that.

I watched a clip on youtube from the film: Fish Scene. It is very sentimental and full of humanitarian love and naievty.

interesting. but perhaps too nice.

Jim Murdoch said...

McGuire, I watched that clip. I thought it was cute and, as the owner of a rather fat and greedy goldfish, I could totally relate.

Dave King said...

I did read this post early on, but was called away and didn't get back to comment until now.
Like Halahblue, I have had this book on my "to get" list for a while now. You have provided the crunch. It will be my next acquisition. Thanks for providing the spur.

Jim Murdoch said...

That's the thing, Dave, there are so many distractions that all you have to do is blink and your attention gets drawn away to something else. Glad to be of service.

drodbar said...

I saw the film at the weekend, on DVD. I did like it a lot: the sensitivity, imagination, wit and tenderness made the depressingly frank depiction of modern American life palatable. Somewhat in the vein of American Beauty.

There's an interview with Miranda July on the DVD. She comes across as very creative, original, wise and actually pleasant.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Drodbar. I liked American Beauty quite a bit so I may very well see if I can locate a copy of this one and make my own mind up.

drodbar said...

I'm sure you'll find the film interesting, Jim.

Thanks for the You Tube story: I liked that very much too. It was the narrator's own unconfident but frank character that made it so effective, I think.

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