This review contains spoilers.
Everyone knows that if you paint a human being entirely with house paint he will live, as long as you don’t paint the bottom of his feet. It takes only a little thing like that to kill a person.
-from “Something That Needs Nothing”
My first encounter with Miranda July’s writing was hearing David Sedaris read her short story “Roy Spivey” on the New Yorker fiction podcast. I was on a bus in countryside Korea, chugging through the traffic and the growing dark, and I heard this story that really struck me. It was a story with a slightly off-kilter perspective, a story that was lonely, but also funny. It reminded me of my own fiction-writing in a way that was a little confronting. And it reminded me of myself in a way that was very comforting. I wanted to hear more.
Miranda July is a performer, a filmmaker, and a writer. Her big break came in the form of the 2005 feature film Me and You and Everyone We Know, which she wrote, directed and starred in. The film went on to win awards at both Sundance and Cannes. Her fiction debut was No One Belongs Here More Than You – a collection of short stories first published in 2007. I picked up a copy in Melbourne earlier this year and flew through each story. I found July’s writing extremely familiar and relatable. July’s is a bittersweet view of the world – at once aware of its beauty and the loneliness of living in it.
July draws the reader deep into the perspectives of her characters. The experience is at times engrossing, at times unsettling, but certainly skilful. Every character in all sixteen stories feels disconnected, emotionally cut off. Though each voice is different there is a similar off-beat drone, a common theme of characters looking for meaning but fated not to find it. A lot of the stories have a claustrophobic feel to them. July manages to trap the reader in the anxious, over-analytical minds of her characters. As a member of the ‘Me’ generation (as I’m sure many of July’s other readers are also), anxiety and obsessive over-thinking are traits I recognise in myself. July also writes a lot about the way people idealise life, and how our grandiose and often curiously specific expectations are inevitably disappointed. This is another theme relevant to today’s twenty-and-thirty-somethings, raised on a diet heavy with romantic comedies and slickly edited reality TV. From “The Man on the Stairs”:
I always thought I would be friends with a professional singer. A jazz singer. A best friend who is a jazz singer and a reckless but safe driver.
Another paragraph from “The Man on the Stairs” that resonated with me:
That is my problem with life, I rush through it, like I’m being chased. Even things whose whole point is slowness, like drinking relaxing tea. When I drink relaxing tea, I suck it down as if I’m in a contest for who can drink relaxing tea the quickest. Or if I’m in a hot tub with some other people and we’re all looking up at the stars, I’ll be the first to say, It’s so beautiful here. The sooner you say, It’s so beautiful here, the quicker you can say, Wow, I’m getting overheated.
And the oh-so-self-conscious recognition that all of these problems are our own fault:
This is my number two problem: I am never satisfied with what I have. It goes hand in hand with my number one problem: rushing. Maybe they aren’t so much hand in hand as two hands of the same beast. Maybe they are my hands; I am the beast.
July succeeds the most with the details. It is the little things that kill us – tipping points that can change everything – and it was the lines here and there rather than complete stories that really stayed with me. In “Ten True Things”, for example, comes the realisation of how much can change when so little seems to:
The tape dispenser was still standing, and there was my chair and desk, and him and his desk. But everything else was gone. All the invisible things were gone, and in their place, there was just a bad accountant and his secretary.
Some of the stories in No One Belongs Here More Than You are somewhat vague and ethereal. There is a very unique sense in July’s writing that we are reading about people and events that are at once a part of our own reality while also belonging somewhere much more fantastical. It is through the use of little details that this strangeness is created. A lifetime of free handbags; a dog named Potato; pillows that move by themselves. These sorts of things stick in the mind and hold a story there longer.
On re-reading the collection recently I found myself less in love with the stories, which rarely happens on a second read for me. I was so eager, the first time around, to turn each page because the writing style was so engaging and the characters so familiar. I was hoping to learn something not just about writing, but also about myself and my own thought processes. On my second read I again recognised myself in these stories, but failed to discover any explanation or meaning; to learn anything new. July’s stories are interesting and off-beat on the surface, but some seem to lack substance (which is also something I struggle with in my own writing). Re-reading the stories reminded me a little of the satirical series Portlandia: quirky for the sake of quirky, a ‘put a bird on it’ sort of writing. (I must admit this feeling was in no small way influenced by the jacket photo of Miranda July in a polka dot dress with a sort of bewildered look on her face).
That being said, there is still so much in these stories that resonated with me, and that felt very true. July’s stories are not completely without meaning; there is a thin layer of hope underneath each story, but sometimes it can be hard to get at (the isolation distracts at times from the funnier, more light-hearted elements, and July’s writing is often very funny, though it is a dry, dark humour). One of the most beautiful images that has stuck with me is from the end of “Making Love 2003”. The main character has retreated to her bed, devastated, never to get up again. She wakes to the sound of a neighbour trimming a tree, and believes she will only be able to go on living if he looks up and sees her:
If he saw me, I would live. Look up, look up, look up. He raised his eyes, as if it were his own idea, and I waved.
No One Belongs Here More Than You is an intelligent, funny, and insightful collection. I will certainly be on the lookout for more writing from Miranda July.
No One Belongs Here More Than You was published in Australia by The Text Publishing Company. July’s latest book It Chooses You was released in 2011, and her second feature film The Future was also released in the same year.