The Heart Is a Lonely Hinter

If you take a few moments to think about it, issues of identity in California are different than issues of identity anywhere else. You would not, for instance, confuse identity issues in California with identity issues in Nebraska, much less identity issues in North Dakota. Issues of substance in Nebraska and North Dakota – issues such as Who am I? and How can I be sure I am doing my best? – are the issues of individuals who emerge from an agricultural bent. Issues of substance in California – issues such as Who is my real estate broker? and Is tofu really a complete protein? – are the existential issues of Hunters and Gatherers.

Because there are so many possibilities, issues of identity are always good building blocks for story collections and novels. And just when you think you’ve worked your way through all of them, some new author comes forth with an as yet unexploited issue.

Thus emerges the issue not only of identity but of identity in California as a major theme in “No one belongs here more than you,” a collection of 16 short stories (nine of which have appeared in prestigious literary journals) from Miranda July through Scribner.

July is better known, or perhaps I should say better loved/hated as a performing artist and a filmmaker, information that will lead you (correctly) to suspect that she brings a dramatic, somewhat theatrical approach to her storytelling. July’s characters, models of first-person unreliability, stand before us, her vulnerability showing from the early moments. “It still counts,” one of her narrators maintains, “even though it happened when he was unconscious. It counts doubly because the conscious mind often makes mistakes, falls for the wrong person.”

Not only can you envision a performer before an audience, opening a routine with those two sentences, you can follow the writer’s intent to bring you inside the mind of a person who is trying to establish some toeholds in the universe of romance and relationships. You neither need to be told nor would you be unable to guess that this story, “The Shared Patio,” takes place in California.

I can already see you with an eyebrow akimbo, as in, how many patios are there in Nebraska or the entire state of North Dakota? But admit it, the “it” of “It still counts…” is not opaque. You know where the writer is going, and you have decided to hear her out.

A different narrator, equally first-person, equally of a do-it-yourself reliability, recounts the details of how she induced a group of octogenarians to take her on as a swimming coach, and has them making remarkable progress. The only problem is that there is no swimming pool in the small town where they all live. “This is the story I wouldn’t tell you when I was your girlfriend,” the narrator says, speaking to someone through the cold clarity of having lost that someone, thanks to details that are not shared with us. She speaks of seeing this person with a new girlfriend and we are left to wonder about the breakup – or whether there was ever any “together” in the first place.

A good many beginning writers like the challenge or the oddity or perhaps even the challenge of telling a story through the eyes of an emotionally and/or intellectually challenged person. Nothing so simple or clear-cut may be attributed to Miranda July, for whom unreliability in a character is only one possibility from many, one tool in a toolkit.

“This is how we are different from other animals, she said. But keep your eyes open so you can see the cloth,” begins the story “It Was Romance,” which continues, “We all had white cloth napkins over our faces, and the light glowed through them. It seemed brighter under there, as if the cloth actually filtered out the darkness that was in the rest of the room – the dark rays that come off things and people.”

Who are these people? What did they want? What were they doing? Looking for? Once again, July brings us into unfamiliar, uncomfortable terrain, aware of some sensory deprivation that is linked to discomfort and potential discovery of something innocent but memorably frightening, an understanding of some hidden part of one’s self.

In “I Kiss a Door,” the narrator tells us – or perhaps we are eavesdropping on a conversation she is having with someone else:

It seemed unfair that Eleanor should be so pretty and the lead

singer of the best band and have a dad who sent amazing coats

from expensive stores that were tailored to her exact measurements.

My father didn’t send me anything, but he called me sometimes to

ask me if I could give him a job.

I’m a waitress.

But what about the person who works under the waitress?

The busboy?

Yeah!

We don’t have busboys. I bus the tables.

You could subcontract out to me; it would save you a lot of time.

Once again, July has us thrust into the middle of a relationship in all its reminiscences of a dog trying without success to shake off fleas. We may not like July’s people at first, they may not be quite Nebraska or North Dakota enough for us at first blush, but as we get to see them, picking their way through predicaments as though they were high-style garments in a thrift store, we come grudgingly at first and then with some concern to identify and root for them.

Miranda July has three qualities that make short stories sizzle: She has voice, a sense of timing, and a lovely sense of irony. Even her stories that seem to me to reach the most, such as “Majesty,” have a dramatic structure that lights our way through the labyrinth of emotions.

From the circus and show business, we have an expression, “one-trick-pony,” that is an easy shot to fire across July’s assembled work here, but in fact she has many tricks, including the secure grip on structural matters that relate to the workings of story. However bleak, hopeless, or irrational the behavior of her characters seems to be, there is no doubting that they do what they do because they have to. Nor does it hurt that July obviously cares enough for them to allow them to behave as they do. At the end, she is there with a safety net, just in case.

“No one belongs here more than you” is on balance an accomplished collection from an accomplished storyteller.