The characters in Miranda July’s first book of short stories, Nobody belongs here more than you, are, at the very least, hypersensitive to the world; at worst, they are almost fatally allergic to it. In her recent feature film and in her work as a performance artist July has typically played someone who is ill at ease in her own skin; as an author she just as skilfully makes her awkward, unlucky characters deeply sympathetic. As though watching the unfolding episodes of a reality TV show, we witness their humiliating encounters not knowing whether to laugh, cry or squirm. July’s milieux are the nondescript workplaces, mediocre apartments, shallow friendships and provisional families of America’s 20- and 30-somethings. Her characters are desperately searching for potential relationships forged in self-help groups or Internet chat rooms, but sadly it turns out that these people aren’t connecting so much as just sharing the same general space – communal patios, adult education centres or sewing classes. The rare incidences when they stumble into each other become the zenith of their ordinary routines. One young woman who decides to run a dry swim class inside her (pool-less) apartment, confesses, ‘It was just two hours a week, but all the other hours were in support of those two.’
Written in the modest, elementary style of e-mails sent to a friend while at work, July’s stories’ apparently humble, confessional tone is what makes people accuse her, and other similarly coy writers of her generation, of insulating themselves from criticism. But her style has more in common with the deadpan, self-deprecating humour of Woody Allen and Larry David, who aren’t afraid to mine their embarrassing tics or the deeply petty parts of themselves in their absurd situational comedy. Her protagonists’ most common ailment is a symptom of celebrity magazine culture – especially rampant in her home town of Los Angeles – in which they come to believe that life always could, indeed should, be more glamorous than it is. In ‘This Person’ a woman discovers her life has been just a rehearsal when she finds ‘a long rambling phone message in which every person this person has ever known is talking on a speakerphone and they are all saying, You have passed the test, it was all just a test.’ Another woman is disappointed to realize that the people she thought were her ‘starter friends’ are, in fact, her only friends. No other, better friends have come along.
July’s characters are especially clumsy when it comes to love. They are always blurting out – or worse, acting on – their most private, embarrassing fantasies. One character admits she dreams of Prince William nuzzling his face in her buns; another tries to seduce the young son of the Vietnamese owner of a beauty salon. This is where July’s stories take a darker turn, where girlish or adolescent fantasies veer toward the perverse. Disturbing or shameful sexual encounters play out in jerky, unintended movements that could often be defined as date rape, statutory rape or incest. But instead of seeming extreme, these situations seem like the best possible outcomes for their characters; if you strip away our romantic delusions and fantasies, this is what’s left. July’s characters are managing, barely, to pull themselves from the brink of their ordinary lives, telling themselves constantly that they could’ve done better, but settling for this in the meantime – even if ‘this’ is, simply, as good as it’s gonna get.