I first met Miranda July years ago at a faraway literary conference in Portland, Oregon. Along with Rick Moody and others we were on a panel that was supposed to converse authoritatively about narrative structure. When it came time for July to speak, she stood up and started singing. She was large-eyed and lithe. I don’t remember what song it was—something she had written herself, I believe. I was startled. Who was this woman? (Her performances and short films had not appeared widely enough to have caught my notice.) I was then mortified, not for her, since she seemed completely at ease and the audience was enthralled, but mortified for narrative structure, which had clearly been given the bum’s rush. (Well, fiction writers will do anything to avoid this topic: it is the one about which they are the most clueless and worried and improvisational.)
Sitting next to Ms. July was the brilliant Denis Johnson, who, inspired by his neighbor, when it was his turn (figuring out one’s turn can be the most difficult part of a panel) also began to sing. Also something he had written himself. I may have laughed, thinking it was all supposed to be funny, realizing too late my mistake. There was a tragic aspect to one verse in the Johnson song. I believe he did not sit down because he had not stood to begin with.
Then it was clearly, or unclearly, my turn. If not the wallflower at the orgy then I was the mute at the a cappella operetta (a condition typical of many a July character though not of July herself): I refused to sing. I don’t remember what I said—I believe I read from some notes, silently vowing never to be on another panel. (The next panel I was on, in Boston, I thought went well by comparison. That is, no one burst into random song. But when I said as much to the person sitting next to me, the editor of a prominent literary journal, he said, “Really? This was the worst panel I’ve ever participated in.”) So my introduction to July was one at which I watched her redefine boundaries and hijack something destined to be inert and turn it into something uncomfortably alive, whether you wanted her to or not. This has been my experience of her work ever since.
July’s first feature-length film, the now-famous independent Me and You and Everyone We Know, also upends expectations. July writes, directs, and stars in all her films. In many ways, while remaining a love story, the film is about the boundary-busting that is ruleless sexuality—stalking and sexual transgression—though here the predators and perpetrators are gentle and female. A boy is coercively fellated by two slightly unpleasant teenage girls devising a competition. Low-level sexual harassment is everywhere and July sometimes plays it for laughs. Two kids in a chat room lead someone on a wild goose chase, writing scatological comments in the language of very young children, and despite all this it is hilarious. A shoe salesman named Richard who has set his hand on fire in front of his sons is hounded by a woman named Christine (played by July herself) who does not know him but who is erotically obsessed with him. She has psychically and perhaps correctly marked him as her mate (the telepathic heart is at the center of much of July’s work).
Another character, a middle-aged woman seeking a partner online, finds herself hooked up with a five-year-old boy in the park. Images of flame and precariousness recur—the burning sun, the burning hand, a bright goldfish riding in a plastic bag on a car roof. And yet all is put forward with tenderness and humor. The desire for human love goes unquestioned and its role in individual fate is assumed to be essential. July’s Christine, a struggling artist who works as a driver for ElderCab, possesses a thin-skinned empathy for everyone, and her love for the shoe salesman (who is played in convincingly addled fashion by John Hawkes) is performed with both vulnerability and purity of passion.
In her two feature-length films the chemistry with her male leads is quite strong: they as well as July are like openly soulful children, attaching without reason or guile, and July is quite focused on this quality of connective vulnerability, as well as on children themselves. Her work also engages with the criterion offered up by the character of a museum curator looking at Christine’s own works: “Could this have been made in any era or only now?” With July it is a little of both. She focuses on people living “courageously with grace,” while also quietly arguing with a culture that asks us to do that.
July’s second film, the underrated The Future, continues her exploration of the dissolution of lines between self and other, life and death, animal and human. When one brings up one’s admiration of this film to others, one is often greeted with the dismayed and dismaying, “Oh not the one with the talking cat!” It’s indeed narrated by a deceased cat (voice-over by July). Even if this is initially strange—the cat speaking from its own afterlife about how one must sometimes wait forever and on into death for one’s real life to begin, which is the life with love in it—at the end it is quite beautiful, as is the film, which was based on a performance piece July first did at the Kitchen in New York. Both that piece and the film feature not just the talking cat (named Paw-Paw) but a dancing shirt as well.
The Future tells the story of Sophie and Jason, a young couple in Los Angeles who are stalled in their lives and can neither move successfully forward nor out. Everyone else seems to have gotten the hang of it—marriage, responsibility, children—and Sophie (played by July) sees her friends and acquaintances in a kind of time-lapse photography, moving ahead without her, on into grandchildren. When to disrupt her inertia Sophie, a struggling dancer, leaves Jason for an inappropriate older man—someone with a job, a house, and a daughter—the longing both Sophie and Jason still have for each other, the closeness of their ties, the tender habits of their connection become a kind of telepathy, and time is literally frozen by Jason, to keep Sophie from saying the unsayable breakup words. (One of July’s recent projects has involved an app she created that allows other people to say unpleasant things on your behalf, such as “I think we should see other people.”)
July’s love interest here is played by Hamish Linklater, who has a placid natural vibe with his costar. They have the sleepy reticence of people who have known each other their whole lives and yet there is something tentative and sexy between them. July even filmed a graphic sex scene with Linklater that she decided not to include in the film, since she felt it got carried away. “Everyone should film a raunchy sex scene for their movie then delete it,” she says in the DVD commentary. But the childlike innocence of these young people causes them to be unable to imagine any future world at all. Jason thinks that even his door-to-door canvassing for environmental causes is all for naught, all too late, that climate change has passed its tipping point and the world is already, for all intents and purposes, over and unsalvageable. The film may end with an ocean scene, a talking moon, a pontificating cat, the inevitable reunion of the lovers, but it is profoundly stirring nonetheless. Like much of July’s work it is about the nature of time, which finally, sadly, is no one’s friend; nor does it provide enough of itself: so terrible and cruel and its portions so small, as the old joke goes.
July’s first book of literary fiction, the 2007 story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You, was a rare short fiction hit. For those who bought it for its bright yellow cover and bold sans-serif font in order to face the jacket outward in the guest room bookcase or the study where it can be made into a warm and welcoming objet, it may come as a surprise to learn that the volume contains at least two brilliant stories, especially the longest one, “Something That Needs Nothing,” which first appeared in The New Yorker. It is about two young women, an unnamed narrator and her friend, Pip, who begin their runaway lives by scamming and sexually servicing older women:
We were targeting wealthy women who loved women. Did such a thing exist? We would also accept a woman of average means who had saved up her money.
Boundaries are shattered. Politesse is thrown out the window. Purity of passion ensures not a thing. The narrator tries to keep Pip’s interest by wearing a wig. When, overheated and delirious, she removes it, she is left utterly alone. What a woman will do for love is once again on the author’s mind.
How is this “twee,” “fey,” “winsome”—the words that are sometimes hurled at July and her work? (Wes Anderson is often labeled thus, but when one googles “Wes Anderson” and “fey” one gets a lot of pictures of him and Tina Fey.) David Sedaris on The New Yorker fiction podcast, interviewed about July’s “Roy Spivey”—a story about the mutual psychological deformities brought about by encounters with celebrity—was asked how he felt about July’s harsher critics. He confessed bafflement. “They’re just jealous,” he said. And one is inclined to agree.
A young art student I spoke with recently said, “Miranda July is between generations. The older generation thinks she belongs to young people. But we don’t think about her much. She seems middle-aged. The things we’re doing now she did first, but most of us don’t appreciate that.” That, too, sounds plausible.
Which brings us to her latest event, a somewhat bonkers debut novel entitled The First Bad Man. The narrator is a sensitive single woman named Cheryl Glickman, neither young nor old, neither here nor there; she seems quite buffeted by the random events of life, and when she allows her employer’s twenty-year-old daughter Clee to come live with her, she is quite literally buffeted. Cheryl works for a women’s self-defense nonprofit run by Clee’s parents and Clee is well schooled in body slams and other sorts of martial moves and postures.
Cheryl does her best to keep up but escapes this particular abuse by entering various psychic parallel universes she has devised. She fantasizes about a relationship with her coworker Phillip and she obsessively seeks a baby named Kubelko Bondy, whom she sees perpetually in other babies she encounters day-to-day. “Are you Kubelko Bondy?” she sometimes asks babies or the protruding abdomens of pregnant women and mostly the answer is affirmative. Throughout July’s work she seems to believe in these alternative psychosexual spaces and matter-of-factly presents them. They are often aided by technology—cell phone photos and the like.
As Cheryl goes from being Clee’s enemy, to Clee’s lover, to Clee’s new mother—“it would not be told as a great American love story for our time”—the book gets a little bogged down. Either despite or because of the violent roughhousing Clee never comes into sharp focus, though late in the novel we are told she looks like Scarlett Johansson. Which gives one pause.
Still, there are amusing moments: “The Gregorian chant CD was not ‘our song’ but it was very similar to the one we’d heard on the radio that first morning.” The First Bad Man is not the sexual horror story it initially seems (though many characters are in sadistic relationships) nor is it the coming-out story it seems briefly to be, but it does become a different kind of coming-out story. Once Clee becomes mysteriously pregnant (the likely birth father, revealed at the end, finds the baby, Jack, “standoffish” and so believes he is not the actual father), the novel clicks into gear.
Compare the glancing treatment of the newborn in, say, The Portrait of a Lady to the concentration on the newborn here—“Jack took one look at him and had a massive bowel movement that exploded his diaper; yellow cottage cheese was everywhere”—and the reader can see which is the novelist on whom nothing will be lost. “A real mother throws her heart over the fence and then climbs after it,” thinks Cheryl. Also, “I felt like a statue of something virtuous.” Also, “Was I like honey thinking it’s a small bear, not realizing the bear is just the shape of its bottle?”
We don’t always know what intimate life consists of until novels tell us.
Thus, three-quarters of the way through, The First Bad Man takes a hard right turn and becomes a powerful mother–son love story—it is as if July became a mother herself during the writing of the novel. (I believe she did.) Mother-love is everywhere though it often feels like “a very feverish pity.” July’s faux-cinematic ending reaches into the future to give this tale of an abandoned infant (Clee’s) and a lonely single foster mom, Cheryl, an ending that is all wish-fulfillment. When one throws an ending happily into the future one risks sentimentality, or at least overly neat conclusions. When one concludes by throwing happiness into the past one can end with a moment of unrealized elegiacally positioned hope, which is often less sentimental since such promise is seen whole and is usually partially doomed and more precise than the rapturous gauze of faux cinema.
July risks the sentimentality. But somehow, because the ending reprises and builds upon a small piece of large hope placed earlier in the book—Cheryl’s vision of her adult son, which becomes a premonition—it leaves one thrillingly breathless. A reader may burst into tears whether it’s warranted or not. The book’s epilogue is moving—like an avalanche is moving. And one realizes only then that one has been waiting the whole time for this very thing.
And so one welcomes the multitalented Miranda July to the land of novel-writing. She is difficult to categorize. She is between generations. She believes in psychic connection, the spiritually purifying aspects of passion, the porousness of the self. Her lines sing. She can sing. She doesn’t know that much about narrative structure. No one belongs here more than she.