Accusations of disconnected preciousness and twee grandstanding were perfectly appropriate for Miranda July’s very successful feature film, Me, You and Everyone We Know. Even if you liked the film (as I did, in parts) you could understand where people might be infuriated by its refusal to move beyond the warbling register of the alienated empath, by its authorial monotones of wonder and regret, a soft white noise that came dangerously close to drowning out the thoughts and actions of the film’s characters.
But these faults, so apparent in July’s cinematic work, are nowhere to be found in her short stories. Her debut collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You, offers us 16 brilliantly wrought tales of American loserdom, each one a painful expedition into the modern wastelands of disappointment and mediocrity. But July refuses to strand her characters, offering them instead hastily scribbled directions for redemption in the form of (very) small moments of wonder and — more importantly — agency.
Though July would seem to have few truly cynical bones in her body, those quick to lump her in with the Asperger’s Avant Garde — that diffuse group of eternally precocious wonderdrunk savants including but not limited to the likes of Michel Gondry, Joanna Newsom, and Jonathan Safran Foer — are mistaken in their haste. July is too honest an artist, too clear-eyed, too grown up for such childish tropes. She is the seriously funny lovechild of Michel Houellebecq and Judy Blume, unwilling to soften the message that runs through all of her writing: this is going to hurt in the end. It is there in stories like ‘The Swim Team’, about a disaffected twentysomething who teaches seniors to swim on her living room floor; it’s there in ‘Making Love in 2003’, the story of a young teacher who ends up falling for her early teenaged special needs student; and it’s there in the nearly perfect ‘Something That Needs Nothing’, about an obsessive young lesbian couple trying to navigate domestic life. In some of these stories we are shown the end, the hurt — in some, we are not. And this is perhaps July’s real genius, that thing which cannot be taught, the skill she wasn’t able to master in film: when to focus, and when to fade out.