I read Miranda July’s collection of short stories entitled No One Belongs Here More Than You with a growing sense of excitement at having discovered a writer who presents things in a startlingly unexpected and fresh manner. This collection is a series of stories that are both touching and strange, related in a stripped down style, and an almost ethereal voice. To be honest, I think the term “almost ethereal” is the probably exactly the wrong one to describe her voice. OK it verges on a copout – but it shall stand for lack of a better one. July is very good at finding the weirdest angles to look at ordinary things. In this work, the majority of the stories seem to come from different female identities that share some twisted quirks. Perhaps the book might have been more effective had it been unified by one reoccurring character, but that is not the case. In fact, one of the stories is told from the PoV of a middle-aged man. But, all of the female narrators relate the story from the first person, and most of them seem to be quite lonely and sad for similar reasons. However, this lack of unity to a reoccurring theme was only a minor distraction. Instead, what really got my attention was the way which July’s stories took rather strange turns and how she made them work.
Of course, it is important (to me anyway) that fiction go in weird and unexpected directions. After all, in the span of their life almost everyone has or will break up with someone, be lonely, feel alienated, etc. The trick to great fiction is its ability to look at these mundane occurrences in a different way. In July’s case, she succeeds with this tactic by allowing the reader to inhabit the PoV of a narrator who is completely fearless in her honesty yet often paralyzed by the thought of taking action within the story. Commonly, the state of limbo that July’s characters relate provides some of the strongest moments of tension. This strategy is neither earth shattering or original. What is original is July’s ability to weave in details of a character’s odd habits or socially taboo urges, while carrying on without taking the time to comment as if it were completely natural – which of course it is.
One of the most difficult things a writer can do is to find honest responses that will resonate viscerally with the reader. If July is anything, she is brutally honest regarding some of her character’s most basic urges, and the fact that she refuses to dwell upon the very thing that makes the reader take pause makes odd moments all the more effective. For example, one protagonist shares a patio with her neighbors. She keeps a calendar as to when she or her neighbors use it, going so far as to mark down the times she uses it and times she sees it being used in an attempt to use her perceived share of the space. This is something anyone might do, yet few people would admit to it or even admit to fantasizing about doing it. The reoccurring female protagonist with different names is constantly coveting other people’s lives and living a bizarre alternate reality that the other characters seem to be blissfully unaware of.
Other times, July sets up scenarios that seem impossible at first blush, and then imbues them with so much concrete detail that one starts to believe they could occur. For example, one character teaches her octogenarian neighbors to swim on her kitchen floor. Yes, the idea is ridiculous, but soon you are chuckling, and then out of nowhere it all makes you terribly sad. She will make you sad too, and if you say you are not sad then you are lying or have not lived enough to know you should be sad. The sadness is not sentimental, or romantic. It is a kind of cultural sadness that seems to be in the air in the 21st century. The kind you laugh off all the time, only to have it come back to haunt you at odd moments. To be honest, I am not sure I want to read anymore of July’s work. The book that now resides on my shelf will remain a constant source of interest and inspiration for quite a while. I fear if I move on to some other work, she will let me down. Frankly, I am content right here.