Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Unconventional Writing of Miranda July

I read Miranda July's No One Belongs Here More Than You: Stories and think she is "unconventional." If "conventional" means like everyone else, she is not that. She is "un." But she has her own conventions to which she invites the reader. Having a convention by nature invites some people and excludes others. Who gets an entry badge? Who buys the book? Who goes by the book? Is that conventional? 

The book holds sixteen stories. Reading several stories in a row without coming up for air makes the reader aware of her particular conventions. She will not go where you think she will go until you realize that you expect the unexpected. Her swimming lessons, for instance, occur in a kitchen in "The Swim Team." She is imagining an intruder in "The Man on the Stairs," but seems more afraid of what secrets he will find out about her and her relationship with the man sleeping beside her rather than what he might actually do to her. In July's stories, the action is the imagined life, just under the surface. All the things you might daydream, fancy, or hallucinate rather than the (sometimes, but not always!) dreary world on the surface of her planet. The characters are sometimes shy, awkward, or delusional, but more often than not, they are hopeful as well. And the stories, if not hopeful, are deeply satisfying by the end.

She writes about the tiny details that seem to be side issues, but that reflect human nature and contribute to the scene, such as, "Even the distribution of the napkins had been hard to organize. We had finally settled on take one and pass the rest down" from "It Was Romance" (58). There, in two sentences, she shows us the insecurity and confusion of the group. The characters often feel they know something special, but the knowledge is actually common, like in the "The Shared Patio," this explanation: "…he told me a funny story about a typo. Because we are in the same business, he didn't have to explain that 'typo' is short for 'typographical error'" (5). What makes it so funny is that the reader doesn't need the explanation either, we already know.

Looking for comfort. Sharing a moment with a stranger. Her characters work in printing plants, peep shows, they sand furniture, give earthquake-preparedness talks.They are insecure, they want sex and love. In "Something That Needs Nothing," a character sets one foot in the bathwater and wonders how long she can remain there without moving (68). Other characters freeze in a similar manner. July does erotic well, too, but I will leave that for you to discover on your own.

Conventions require "general agreements" they may be "customs," quirks even, "widely used, accepted." July's conventions are not what I think most readers would call "widely used," or even "accepted," but they are consistent and widely used within her stories. If "conventional" is "conforming, established, traditional, unimaginative," they most certainly are not. They are unconventional: out of the ordinary.



You can read an informative mini-biography of Miranda July in a January 2015 article in the NYTimes. As an art project, and to promote her latest book The First Bad Man, July created fifty objects for sale, objects that appear on the pages of the novel but that did not previously exist with the same meaning in real life, such as "blouse with diagonal pastel stripes" and "the essence of red" and "white paper with Phillip's name on it." You can see them here. It looks like all the objects have been sold, the proceeds donated to The National Partnership for Women and Families. Conventional objects made extraordinary.

1 comment:

Olga Norris said...

Thank you for your description of Miranda July's writing. I am a lover both of the short story form, and of the unconventional in the way you describe MJ, so I've just downloaded the collection onto my kindle (I know - I do love real books, but the house is already groaning, and so fiction is now electronic, mostly).

I am reading James Robertson's 365 Stories - one for every day of the year, in 365 words, and written one a day - which I am very much enjoying. No feeling of constraint whatsoever - I'm really enjoying them.