Saturday, July 14, 2007

Book Review Saturday: No one belongs here more than you.

I first heard of Miranda July when I saw the film Me and You and Everyone We Know, but apparently, she'd already made a name for herself in the art world even before winning several awards at Cannes. Mainly I mention the film because if you've seen it, it's the perfect primer for this book of short stories, which have the same sensibility, albeit sometimes much darker, as the film.

Two of the stories in No one belongs here more than you. I'd read beforehand, "The Shared Patio" in Zoetrope: All Story and "Something That Needs Nothing" in The New Yorker, and I remember at the time thinking, "Please let her be writing a book!" The question is, do I still feel so thankful now that she's written it?

The answer is mostly yes. Luckily, the book opens with "The Shared Patio," in which a young woman nurses a secret crush for her married, epileptic neighbor. (You can read the full story here.) Ms. July is masterful at capturing loneliness on the page in a way that's neither cliche nor overly...well, psychological. Loneliness in her character seems to be more a result of genetic makeup than environmental cause, something characters have no more control over than height or eye color. Sometimes it's so palpable and organic to the character, it makes one squirm and wish to seek someone else's company immediately.

In "The Swim Team," the narrator acts a a swim coach, teaching a group of senior citizens to swim on dry land, bringing hope and life to both herself and her pupils. It's a lie she's told to form a connection through conversation that ends up changing her story about herself, long after she's left the town behind and the swimmers have possible passed from this life.

Other stories take a darker turn, like "Majesty," "The Sister," and "Ten True Things." In each of these stories, people form sexual attachments in odd or unconventional manners, attachments that sometimes fail to fulfill longing and emptiness. However, Ms. July lets every character have his or her dignity, and also hope, which is not any easy trick of the pen. Many writers who try to capture this balance fail, and end up seeming either overly dramatic or precious--or both.

This is not to say I don't think the book has its flaws. I felt that sometimes she goes so far to show loneliness that it strains credulity, but it could be my discomfort at seeing loneliness laid so bare on the page. Humans may be capable of so many things, particularly when no one else is watching.

In her writing sensibility, Miranda July seems to hover somewhere between Lorrie Moore and Mary Gaitskill. She has the hope and quirkiness of Lorrie Moore, but not quite the command of wit and language, and also perhaps not quite the accessibilty. Ms. Moore's characters could be people we know, where Ms. July's characters are people we see but who seem to always remain apart from us, from the world.

She has the view into the darker side of life that Mary Gaitskill also presents her audience, and like Ms. Gaitskill she has the ability to make us see this dark side is simply a part of human nature as opposed to perversion (although sometimes Ms. Gaitskill's characters lapse into unconventional behavior out of sheer boredom with life, and Ms. July's characters out of need for connection). A point of illustration here: Mary Gaitskill wrote the short story "Secretary," on which the movie with Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader was based. Gaitskill's story is nothing like the movie, the only remaining recognizable part being a boss and secretary who somehow connect--fleetingly--when he spanks and berates her. The movie changes the story and fleshes out the characters so that these events are romantic and even sweet in nature, and it occurred to me, had Miranda July written the story, that's the way she might have told it herself...although perhaps without the Hollywood ending. Perhaps. (After all, she also co-wrote the story for The Center of the World, about a hooker and a millionaire's one night in Las Vegas. I haven't seen it, and so cannot comment.)

Besides "The Shared Patio," my other favorite story in the book is "How to Tell Stories to Children," in which the narrator becomes a mother figure--or really, more like a third parent--to the daughter of her ex-lover and his wife. I enjoyed this story for the questions it raises about family and children, about what brings love to a life or takes it away. I'm almost sure someone will snatch this one up and make it a film, but I hope not--not unless Miranda July does it herself. More so than novels, stories seem to belong to their authors and feel entirely personal, perhaps because we can't help but identify the author (or at least the author's view of the world) with the narrator, whereas in novels, many voices allow us to disconnect a bit. But that's a topic for another time.

The promotional site for No one belongs here more than you. is fun--visit it here. You can also visit Miranda July's Web site to learn more about her other projects. You can buy the book anywhere you like, but I suggest Powell's. Support independent book sellers!

*photo from