NO ONE BELONGS HERE
MORE THAN YOU
By Miranda July
Scribner, 207 pages, $27.99
There ought to be one of those peerless German nouns that encapsulate a universe of complex emotions - like Weltschmerz and Schadenfreude - to convey the crushing disappointment you feel on discovering something you thought you'd love is unworthy of your anticipatory adoration. Maybe something like Enttauschungliebe. This could be a useful word for those poised to lose their hearts to a pulled pork sandwich, or the new season of 24, or a long-lost birth mother. Or a book. As in, "I experienced a ballooning feeling of Enttauschungliebe as I read American indie-film and art-world darling Miranda July's debut collection of stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You."
I don't think I've felt this let down by an eagerly anticipated book since Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body in 1992. Although in this instance, the anticipation wasn't based on a substantial body of work - three superb previous novels, in Winterson's case - but a quirkily fresh and emotionally astute film, You, Me, and Everybody We Know, and a single story in The New Yorker, the innocent yet knowing Something That Needs Nothing. Add to this that one of my literary heroes, George Saunders, blurbed the book. Maybe I was just too eager to find a new short-story crush.
I can't say there weren't warnings: July's DIY website for her collection, which, though it has a certain geek chic, seems a bit fey (there's something of a calculated ingenuousness to someone who says they've spent an entire day writing on the top of their fridge in black marker and then painstakingly erasing and then writing some more and erasing some more, due to not having a proper white board). And the book is rather self-consciously published in two different editions, yellow and pink.
The faux naïf quality of July's website is endemic to the book itself. The collection, overall, suffers from what you could call "Hello Kitty Syndrome" - it's filled with childlike adult women and a surfeit of cuteness (dogs called Potato, characters called Pip, grownups who only relate to children).
There's a surfeit of quirkiness, as well. A woman teaches some old people to swim in her kitchen by getting them to put their faces in bowls of water; a woman fantasizes about Prince William; a woman fantasizes about her epileptic Korean neighbour; a woman fantasizes about her boss's wife and joins a sewing class to be near her.
The cuteness factor is undercut by an erotic undercurrent, sometimes even sexually explicit content, so many of the stories end up the literary equivalent of the Mia Kirshner character in Atom Egoyan's film Exotica - the school-girl stripper.
And like the stalkerish character July portrays in her Sundance and Cannes Festival award-winning film, most of her protagonists here are stalkers too, glomming onto inappropriate, or completely inaccessible, objects of affection. If July had gone deeper into the encroaching darkness, she might've had something of more substantial bite here.
There are a few good stories, the best being the aforementioned Something That Needs Nothing, a story of unrequited love between a young woman and her long-time best gal friend. The better stories are the longer stories, rather than much shorter ones that feel predicated on a conceptual quirk. July does longing very well, a sort of existential pining that sometimes slips into plain old inertia. How to Tell Stories to Children is a particularly evocative and emotionally true tale of how we ultimately end up finding ourselves alone. A woman helps a troubled couple raise their child only to find in the end that "I know nothing about her. It was really over and I was really not her mother."
Your reaction to an anecdote July shares in interviews about her experience at the renowned Yaddo artist colony may determine whether you have a affinity for her style of fiction. When the conversation turned to point of view and she was asked what POV she was writing her stories in, she had no idea what the other writers were talking about.
The over-reliance on the intuitive speaks to the limits of July's craft. In more than one story, for instance, there are inexplicable tense shifts that are almost certainly not there for effect. Other stories are mere premises and end where the stories could more interestingly begin. And then there's the overall sameness and sense of tripping after the muse rather than taking the reins. All of July's first-person narrators, whether young women, middle-aged women or old men, sound exactly the same, share the same beguiled, naive tone.
Miranda July has evidently spawned a divided reaction in the art and film worlds. She's been called "the undisputed high priestess of the DIY art revolution," while others find themselves impatient with work that comes across as overly earnest and somewhat precious.
Whether her stories are appealing or annoying may depend on whether you've bought into July's growing cult of personality - or persona. (I'm reminded of how New Yorker writer Calvin Tomkins described art sensation Jeff Koons in a recent profile: "[He]struck me as an odd, amorphous presence, someone who was either amazingly naive or slyly performative.")
I'll settle for waiting for July's next film and being relieved I was sent the yellow rather than pink edition of her book.
Contributing reviewer Zsuzsi Gartner enjoys her share of Weltschmerz in East Vancouver.