Friday, November 9, 2007

No One Belongs Here More Than You

Miranda July’s debut short-story collection; review was in the Toronto Star in spring 2007. Might have been a bit soft on this one, as it hasn’t really stuck in my mind much since I read it.

The short-story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You is Miranda July’s first book, but it’s hardly her first step onto a public stage. July, who lives in Los Angeles, has already had a varied career as a performance artist, sometime musician, and most notably filmmaker and actress, having directed and starred in the indie hipster fave Me and You and Everyone We Know two years ago.

Happily, though, July’s writerly debut doesn’t read like the work of a dilettante. The book is uneven – what first collection of 16 stories wouldn’t be? – but often enough it shows both care and talent, and its best it will leave readers both laughing and brooding.

Though the stories in No One Belongs Here More Than You range widely in situation, some generalities can be made, and they won’t surprise anyone who saw Me and You and Everyone We Know. Nearly all of the stories are told in the first person, and nearly all of those narrators are female. A typical July protagonist is a lonely, wide-eyed misfit, aching to connect with someone but unable to. She may have vague artistic ambitions and she may be intelligent, but she’s strangely diffident and seems to be off in some way, as if some essential circuit has shorted, hampering her ability to interpret and navigate the world.

The very first story sets the tone. Here a woman ponders her neighbours, a young couple named Vincent and Helena: “What if I borrowed her clothes and she said, That looks better on you, you should keep it. What if she called me in tears, and I had to come over and soothe her in the kitchen, and Vincent tried to come into the kitchen and we said, Stay out, this is girl talk! I saw something like that happen on TV; these two women were talking about some stolen underwear and a man came in and they said, Stay out, this is girl talk! One reason Helena and I would never be close friends is that I am about half as tall as she. People tend to stick to their own size group because it’s easier on the neck. Unless they are romantically involved, in which case the size difference is sexy. It means: I am willing to go the distance for you.”

There are laughs in there both broad (the easier-on-the-neck non sequitur) and subtle (I find the colon in the last sentence inexplicably funny), but it still manages to sound like a weirdo talking, not like an an abstract comic exercise. Throughout the book, July tests that line with more oddball characters. Some are merely goofy, like the woman in “The Swim Team,” who gives old people “swimming lessons” on her kitchen floor, using bowls of warm water; others may actually be deranged, like the woman in “Making Love in 2003,” who believes she was violated as a teenager by a disembodied “black shape” and spends her adulthood trying to find its human configuration.

As that suggests, there’s a fair bit of bad sex in July’s stories, too. Not bad as in laughably described – on the contrary, even a few lines of throwaway dialogue in one story, “I Kiss a Door,” are startling in their economy and immediacy – but bad as in unsatisfying, messy, odd. A grown man nurses at his wife’s breasts like a child; a young woman masturbates to her sister’s tales of debauchery, recounted over the phone. These quirks are presented nonjudgmentally, but there’s no celebratory, diff’rent-strokes-for-diff’rent-folks air, either. Rather, the characters’ sex lives seem like another expression of their pathologies and miseries.

The downside to No One Belongs Here More Than You is that its tonal palette occasionally seems limited, tedious. Several of the stories are miniatures, only a few pages long, and the weaker ones seem more like sketches, telling us things we’ve already been told in a flat, compulsive monotone.

It’s probably no coincidence that two of the most affecting stories are also two of the longest in the book. In “Something That Needs Nothing,” two teenage girls move to the big city (Portland, Orgeon) and try to make a life together, but fall out; the narrator ends up working in a peepshow booth in back of a porn video store. “How to Tell Stories to Children” is about a bizarre family relationship – a couple is too absorbed in their own battles and affairs to care about their young daughter, so the narrator, a friend of the husband’s, becomes the girl’s de facto mother. Both of these stories take their time, allowing us to settle in with the characters. And they’re both also refreshing because their narrators are relatively clear-eyed; the stories get their effect less from the loopiness of the narrators own perceptions than from the complications of their situations.

No comments: