December 6, 2007

Book review: "No one belongs here more than you.," by Miranda July

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No one belongs here more than you.
By Miranda July
Scribner / ISBN: 978-0-7432-9939-8

I don't think it's any secret by now that I'm not a big fan of short stories, and even less so of bound story collections released as full-length books. I mean, I don't dislike short stories per se, just that I don't particularly go out of my way to read them either, and in general find most to be there and then gone again before I've ever really gotten a chance to sink my teeth into them, a frustrating thing for someone like me who really likes to do a deep, analytical reading of all the projects I consume in my life. But I also acknowledge that this is merely my personal biases shining through, and that there are in fact lots of things to admire about the short-fiction format as well, and lots of reasons to like stories precisely because they aren't full-length novels. For example, it's undeniable that in Western culture at least, short stories are one of the only narrative formats where one is allowed to ditch the traditional three-act structure (the framework behind most Western fictional projects since the times of the ancient Greeks), one of the only places where artists are allowed to be truly experimental without automatically having their work tossed into the "artsy mess" ghetto that so many of the general populace refuses to enter. It's a thing I've been thinking more and more about this year, in fact, of where the balance should lay in a person's life between longer traditional stories and shorter experimental ones; that while it's true that a well-rounded person should have a little of both as part of their intellectual diet, it's also true that most of us by human nature are going to vastly prefer one format over the other.

No one belongs here more than you., by Miranda July

Take as a good example the first story collection I've now read for review here at CCLaP, the engaging and sometimes deeply disturbing No one belongs here more than you., the first traditional book by non-traditional artist Miranda July; it is in fact a perfect example of what I'm talking about, with the stories on display being both greater as a whole than any traditional novel and so much less as a sum of its parts, an experience that feels like being on a moped on an urban street full of start-and-stop traffic. Although ultimately a worthwhile publication, full of stories that I think really stand out among the world of contemporary literature, the book is unfortunately a fitful read as well, with certain pieces that will yank your brain right out of the made-up world that July so carefully slipped you into during the previous story. That's frustrating to me, as someone who likes getting caught up in the fictional projects I take on; it's frustrating to lose oneself in one of July's deceptively intense stories on display, just to be yanked back into the real world with the subpar writing or plotting of the next.

So why take on this book in the first place? Well, because July frankly is a veritable poster-child for this arts center, and for all things that I as CCLaP's executive director admire in artists: she is an interdisciplinary creator for one, with nationally-released projects now not only in the world of literature but also film, music, and museum-oriented performance art. She is a fiercely independent artist for another, full of strong opinions that she makes known in infinitely smart and metaphorical ways in her work. She's a hipster as well, a good-looking big-city dweller who has directed videos for rock bands in the past, and who makes promotional websites for her projects that charm the pants off basically anyone who comes across them. (And if this wasn't enough hipster cred, she also got her start as an artist in Portland, which should really come as a surprise to no one.) And to top everything off, she's a funny and nerdy and deeply strange person as well, someone infinitely fascinating in an otherworldly kinda way, and by that I mean that you often think when watching her talk, "I wonder what it must be like to live in whatever world Miranda July is living in."

And indeed, as seen in No one belongs here..., the world is in fact quite a strange place as viewed from the eyes of July, an infinitely confusing place where our protagonists are constantly trying to make sense of the everyday actions of the people around them. July's one of those writers who questions everything, who challenges every assumption she sees around her, who sometimes with great humor and sometimes with great gravitas basically breaks down the reality of the pedestrian world around us on a daily basis, then rebuilds it back up as seen from the eyes of terminal outsiders, people you'd be tempted to call space aliens if not for the fact that we all know at least a couple of people just like this in real life. July's world is littered with characters facing profound and ongoing neuroses, sometimes making them charming in a Woody Allen kind of way, sometimes deeply repulsive in a Jeffrey Dahmer kind of way; a world where the majority of the stories' narrators are unequipped to understand the way the "normal" world around them functions, sometimes leading to deep empathy on our part and sometimes deep disgust.

And this right here is what I'm talking about, when it comes to generally not caring for bound collections of stories such as this, because as it should be these stories vary wildly in both tone and quality quite a bit; one might be silly and funny, the next cutting-edge and too long, the next after that funny again but now in a black and edgy way, and this time too short. There's nothing wrong with this extreme disparity in tone and quality, of course, when you're coming across the stories one at a time out in the world that originally publishes short fiction -- literary journals, magazines, websites and the like -- and in fact this is a major reason to purchase and read such serial publications, is for the standalone stories found in them that can be taken just on their own. But when grouped together into a bound manuscript, I feel that such stories start to clash against each other for the reader's attention, that they make the reader want to apply an analysis to the collection as a whole, even if the author wrote the stories decades apart and meant no shared theme at all. Whenever I read a short-story collection, I find my brain constantly starting and stopping, starting and stopping; either I'll really start to dig a story just to have it end before I want, or a bad story will go on and on much longer than I want, or a mediocre story will make my mind wander and ultimately put the entire book down. It's for all these reasons that I'm not a big fan of story collections, even while acknowledging all the unique positive features that come with the format.

Now, that said, where No one belongs here... really shines is when it comes to what is obviously July's greatest strength as a writer, which is her absolute mastery over incredibly twisted and disturbing tales of sexuality; in fact, you could argue that the mere handful of stories that deal with the subject here are worth the purchase price of the entire book, no matter what you think of the rest. And that's because July has the courage to talk about the kinds of sexual subjects that most others dare not speak aloud, even the people actually having the sex being discussed; shameful and wrong sex, that is, the kinds of acts even the participants are deeply horrified at finding themselves participating in, and who can't wait to be finished with even as they deliberately put themselves in the situations to begin with. Take for example what is easily (easily) the best story in the book, "Something That Needs Nothing" -- of how it just so perfectly examines the infinitely complex set of emotions that goes through a person's head the very first time they exchange sex for money, in a way so precise and insightful that it would surprise me to learn that July had never had the experience herself.

This is July's main strength as a writer, is in capturing what is an infamously elusive thing in literature to get right, a spot-on examination of people falling down the rabbit-hole of dark human emotions; and make no mistake, despite the cutesy elf-like demeanor of the author in the physical world, the best of her work will take you to places you only thought existed in the inky black souls of child molesters and the like. It's a surprising thing to learn about a woman known mostly for her quirky humor, that her best work is actually the stuff that plumbs the depths of human depravity, and is bound to make a lot of people look at her a lot differently once finished. It's why I ultimately ended up reading the entire thing, and ultimately ended up reviewing it here, because I ultimately felt it well worth your attention; but like I said, I still have issues with the short-story format itself, and had a lot of problems fully getting into any of the tales being told. Here's hoping that July will take on yet another new medium soon, the full-length novel, where I am sure she would excel just as much as every other medium she's tried; she's an infinitely compelling artist, when all is said and done, someone I become just a little more obsessed by with each further project of hers I get to check out. I'm highly looking forward to July's next project, whenever that might be and in whatever medium it's in.

Out of 10:
Story: 6.3
Characters: 10
Style: 8.8
Overall: 7.8

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 1:14 PM, December 6, 2007. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |