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Jul/Aug 2015 Reviews & Interviews

The Paradox of Belongingness in the Short Fiction of Miranda July

No One Belongs Here More Than You
Miranda July.
Scribners. 2008. 205 pp.
ISBN 978-0743299411.

Review by Cameron Murphy


Buy now from Amazon! Vital, cool writer-slash-director-slash-multimedia artist-slash-God-knows-what-else-she-can-do Miranda July's recent collection of short stories, No One Belongs Here More than You, is a slim, quirky and cool yet also layered and very vital piece of work indeed. Its title is not insignificant. That is, one gets the sense that July's deepest concern as an artist (and, presumably, as a human too) is loneliness. Or rather, Belongingness. Theoretically: the unbridgeable gap between Self & Other. Simply: love. More pressingly: whether or not it's possible. And crucially: what do we do when it isn't?

Reading Miranda July is at least a good start.

Admittedly, I was only vaguely familiar with July's work before opening No One's front cover. Though I haven't checked out her films or performance art yet, I'm pretty aware of her—ahem—aesthetic. What do I mean? Well, there are plenty of ways to describe it. It represents a broad brand of contemporary (i.e. post-internet) art that is cute and light and soliciting "likes" and either too sentimental or too ironic or too much of both at once; some people call it "twee." Wes Anderson and Belle & Sebastian are canon. Like porn or junk food or sadness, it's impossible to define, but you know what it is when you see it.

Anyway July's work—at least the at issue collection—I submit is not "twee" exactly but rather is rather urgent, and important, and, to use an already overused word in fiction reviews, occasionally fucking devastating.

For example. Recurrent are characters that fantasize wildly about connecting with other people (romantically, sexually, platonically or fleetingly) yet, over and over again, remain unconnected. Unloved. Alone. In other words they do not Belong. And yet, as July posits, no one belongs, right where there they are, more than they do.

A typical story in No One consists of discursive, quirky 1st person. Her prose is slight but lucid and potent. Replete with lines surely some well-read teen is appropriating for their Tumblr as I type it here too:

"We fell into silence then; he did not ask me any more questions. I was still happy to sit there beside him, but that is only because I have very, very low expectations of most people, and he had now become Most People."

Ouch.

That's from the opening story, "The Shared Patio," in which the quirkily discursive 1st person narration narrates the narrator's fantastical and secret yearning to be loved. By her neighbor. With whom she shares the eponymous patio. She wants to belong.

Prefiguring much of what's to come, the story ends on a melancholy note wherein an unknown, omniscient other narrator (more or less July) more or less submits the thesis statement of No One Belongs Here More than You:

Do you have doubts about life? Are you sure if it is worth the trouble? Look at the sky: that is for you. Look at each person's face as you pass on the street: those faces are for you... Remember this when you wake up in the morning and think you having nothing. Stand up and face the east. Now praise the sky and praise the light within each person under the sky. It's okay to be unsure. But praise, praise, praise.

Another one, "Majesty," sees its narrator quixotically pining for Prince William. It is a sad story because it is everyone's.

Following it is "The Man on the Stairs," which is about among many things a strange man, on the stairs, confronting a woman in her home. With metaphor and symbolism so stark as to be almost crude. However, after the blunt climax (she tells him to Get out of my house) we are treated to a much more realistic, and thus unsettling conclusion, on a normal car ride, with her normal husband:

I steeled myself against laughter; I would rather die than laugh. I didn't laugh, I did not laugh. But I died, I did die.

It's actually the quiet moments that kill us, July knows.

Another motif used liberally in No One is the odd, humiliating sexual encounter. A secretary makes rash advances on her boss's wife in "Ten True Things." A failed writer falls for her special-needs high school student in "Making Love in 2003." Both morally murky, both touching.

Likewise, in "The Sister," a man offers his coworker his nubile teen sister, when, in fact, she's a fake; a ploy to lure the friend into a relationship with him. A mere old man. In an unexpected moment of uplift, it works: "The new life came easily after this, a growl," says the fooled man, fitting himself to love's strange mold. It's touching.

Doubtless the keen Women & Gender's Studies Grad Student could pick apart the myriad nontraditional sexuality stuff for rich thesis fodder. Though, they'd have a hard time finding a transparent political message in this thing; smartly, July eschews the facile, easy socio-political statement for something deeper, more universal. Plain old human. (If there is such a thing; July makes a cogent case; I think I believe her.)

Perhaps one main technical flaw in the collection is the lack of variation in Voice. As mentioned before, it's constantly 1st person; further, it's a social outcast who rambles on and on about the lugubrious, odd vicissitudes of their failed love affairs. At her worst, then, July draws kooky, endearing but ultimately vapid characters. Characters you might critically call "twee."

See for instance, "The Swim Team," in which a woman recounts a brief time in her life in which she taught an unusual brand of apartment swim lesson to a trio of local seniors. It's a slender, funny story; it does not have much to say.

Contrastingly, "This Person" represents the most stylistically weird one in the bunch. It's told in 3rd. More unusually, the narrator's never named, but metonymically referred to throughout as "this person." Furthermore, the story's very fantastic, unreal. In short, "this person" is loved and adored by everyone, everywhere, yet abandons this vast acceptance to go home and check the mail in search of a particular, singular love. Uncovering an empty mail box, she runs a bath, and goes to bed. Unhappy and unadored yet wholly content somehow:

This person mourns the fact that she has ruined her one chance to be loved by everyone; as this person climbs into bed, the weight of this tragedy seems to bear down upon this person's chest. And it is a comforting weight, almost human in heft. This person sighs. This person's eyes begin to close, this person sleeps.

As I understand it, this passage typifies the sort of paradox underlying July's overarching theme, that is, in so many words: infinite love without fulfillment. The weight of "this person's" tragedy is perversely comforting to them. Human in heft. We're un-alone in (and more profoundly because of) our universal loneliness.

Nietzsche, Kafka, Existentialism, et cetera. July gets at it too, and artfully so.

The last and longest story in the collection, "How to Tell Stories to Children," reads like a Greatest Hits of July's skill set. There's an emotionally meandering narrator, a precociously cute kid, and brazenly unconventional relationship dynamics (to say the very least).

In sum it's the story of a childless woman who, for thematic reasons, befriends a friend's daughter and becomes inextricably tangled in her life, her split-up parents' lives, and, strangely, the family therapist's life. Things get messy. Sexually, emotionally, psychologically and otherwise. There's a surprise at the end that threatens to take things too far; however, the narrative (and thus the book you've been holding in your hands) ends on a pitch-perfect note. It's that self-voiding, infinite-finite sort of love.

The paradox.

A life spent loving someone (not romantically; deeper) who never loved you back, who loves you back, not fully. But thus fully:

My eyes ventured slowly from the dish to the front of her blouse, to her eyes. What did I find there? Meanness and gloating? Slyness? Shame? They were sparkling with the old love, the greatest love of my lifetimes. And they were triumphant.

These things are hard to talk about, these human things. One must resist the cynical, smart, grown-up urge to knock what July's doing here. Indeed, July compels you to resist.

She's addressing the oldest, biggest, most urgent human plights (e.g. sex, death, loneliness, love) head-on, unapologetically. Humanly.

At times, she slips up; leans a little too far toward flat, cute caricatures of real people (tweeness, or whatever).

And yet, over and over again, we're reminded that this artist, this stranger, this real life other consciousness who wrote these words a while ago—Miranda J. July—cares deeply about the particular lives of people. You and me. Our ugliness, our beauty and banal routine.

Her book, then, is this other psychic realm in which death is paradoxically also life. Loss is love. Loneliness is belonging.

After all, we all belong right here. No one more than us.

 

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