Last week GUTS introduced Reading Alone Together. Today, Esmé Hogeveen and Charlotte Bondy kick-off the short story reading series by talking about two of Miranda July’s stories.
by Esmé Hogeveen
This December, on a cold afternoon in Toronto, I spoke to Charlotte Bondy about Miranda July’s short stories “Something That Needs Nothing” and “Ten True Things.” Charlotte and I have talked about July before. We are both fascinated by her work, but also by the role she plays in, as Charlotte put it, “this new feminist cartography,” which also includes “Sheila Heti and Lena Dunham.” (Oh and hey, if you’re interested in that cartography, check out July’s interview with Lena Dunham from Interview magazine’s February issue, which offers some context for Charlotte and my conversation.)
So, a little background info on Miranda July… Wikipedia tells us that her middle name is Jennifer and that she is an American, born on February 15, 1974. The whimsical quality of her website suggests that July might find great significance in her birthday being the day after Valentine’s Day. After reading her stories, you might also derive greater meaning from her birth date. For me, this kind of cajoling persuasion to see things through her eyes is the genius of July. For all the naysayers who say she’s too twee or self-consciously hip (just google her name to get a sense of the controversy she inspires), July can create characters which feel deeply genuine, despite—or in fact because of—their quirky exteriors.
Love her or hate her, Miranda July’s certainly got something unique. In No One Belongs Here More Than You, the collection which “Something That Needs Nothing” and “Ten True Things” both come from, she directs her literary energy towards depictions of lonely people, many of them women, looking for connection, and maybe even friendship.
Each interview will begin with a few questions about the interviewee and their reading habits. I know Charlotte from way back in grade seven, when we played in the same public school strings ensemble. Charlotte played the cello and wore Weezer t-shirts, and I always thought she seemed very cool. Years later, our paths crossed again and we became great chums while both living in Halifax and studying at the University of King’s College. These days Charlotte is a student at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.
Occupation: Student of Creative Writing.
Favourite childhood book: The one that comes immediately to mind is Kit Pearson’s The Guests of War trilogy. I was super into those. I even wrote KP a fan letter and she wrote me back. It ruled.
Favourite place to read: Long train trips.
Author you wish more people knew about because she/he is really great: Kevin Barry’s stories are a serious delight to read. I would recommend them from the bottom of my heart.
ESMÉ: Thanks for doing this interview.
CHARLOTTE: No problem.
E: So, Miranda July.
C: Haha, yeah. People either love her or hate her.
E: It’s funny that she’s one of those people who you feel like you have to say the full name of.
C: Yeah, she’s definitely a character.
E: Do you want to focus more on “Something That Needs Nothing” [STNN]? I feel like there may be a bit more to talk about in that story.
C: I agree. It definitely felt like the stronger of the two. More emotional.
E: In STNN and “Ten True Things” [TTT], it seems like there is something really important about the exclusive, even possessive quality, of the characters’ relationships. Intimacy appears to be on such a high pedestal for Miranda July that sometimes I think she may be purposefully obscuring the characters’ relationships in order to suggest how exclusive they are. Would you agree?
C: I think that… and I’m not a foe of Miranda July! I think that she is incredibly talented. I think that David Sedaris is right. A lot of people who critique Miranda July are also jealous. But yeah, you can’t really read too many of her stories at once. I would say no, she doesn’t privilege intimacy to the point of making it untouchable. I think there are moments where she is definitely trying to point to, and reveal, true things about genuine friendships.
E: There is a lot of ambiguity between sexual, romantic and platonic energy in STNN. Do you feel like it is really a story about friendship?
C: STNN is a story about a more-than-friendship, I think. At the heart of the story, I see the narrator straining desperately for a connection that ultimately isn’t there, rather than a portrait of friendship or companionship. A sense of tenderness or intimacy is absent from the story. In fact, Pip treats the narrator pretty callously.
E: Do you think July’s presentation of the fractious relationship between the protagonist and Pip challenges the reader’s assumptions about how friendships can, or should, be simple?
C: In the first couple pages of the story the narrator defines her relationship with Pip by telling us:
“we shared the ancient bed that came with the studio. This was tremendously thrilling for one of us. One of us had always been in love with the other. One of us lived in a perpetual state of longing. But we’d met when we were children and seemed destined to sleep like children, or like an old couple who had met before the sexual revolution and were too shy to learn the new way” (64).
And it is this strange sense of neutered inertia that seems to characterize their relationship. Desire is present, but it is constantly being thwarted or diverted. In the moments where the narrator’s sexuality is explicitly addressed, like when Tammy asks if she and Pip “‘are girlfriends or what[?],’” July’s characters are literally rendered inert (72). After Pip drapes her arm across the narrator’s shoulder and she flops a hand on Pip’s thigh she says, “Pip and I did not move from our position. After an hour and twenty minutes, my back ached and my numb blue hand felt unaffiliated with the rest of my body” (72-3). Her friendship with Pip certainly moves outside of the boundaries of friendship, and yet the relationship itself is a totally cerebral fantasy that can only be consummated when the narrator moves outside of herself in some way, like when she’s drunk or wearing the wig.
E: Both STNN and TTT evoke very self-aware representations of fluid sexual identity. There is something liberating, at least on the surface, of Miranda July’s refusal to label these relationships as “romantic,” “sexual,” or “platonic” (or even some hybrid of the three), but is there also something eerily appropriative?
C: I just googled “Miranda July Gay” and came up with some kind of vice article that says she once dated a woman. So there! She’s vindicated! Haha. But I really did think about the question of appropriation and I actually don’t think that issue is there in the stories. I think the complex blur of the female relationship in STNN functions in a much stronger way than it does in TTT. In the latter story, the relationship doesn’t feel as fully realized. It feels more like a stylized quirk. I believe Pip and the narrator of STNN though, and I root for the narrator’s happiness in a way that I’m not compelled to do with the narrator of TTT. Basically, I don’t think July is being appropriative, but at the same time I don’t feel like she is always successful in drawing and realizing the complex sexualities of her characters.
E: However unsure I may be of Miranda July’s self-consciously “quirky girl” characters, I did feel like something rang very true about the sadness and incommunicability of losing a friendship. We’re taught that friends are there for life, but in reality, things are rarely that simple. Do you think Miranda July captures that?
C: Absolutely. For me, that’s where the real ache of STNN is. It does capture the strange sort of transience that can characterize very intense relationships. She’s good at that. It felt very real. I think it’s a very particular denouement that happens as childhood friendships slide awkwardly into adulthood, too.
E: In both stories, we see that a moment of experiencing friendship or true connection can have the inverse-effect of revealing greater depths of personal loneliness. For example, at the end of TTT, when the protagonist recalls:
“…Ellen and I looked quickly at each other. Our nakedness was recalled, like a seizure in the air. There was no apology in her eyes, no love or caring. But she saw me, I existed, and this lifted the beams of my shoulders. It takes so little” (142-3).
I found this so incredibly depressing. That said, it does feel like the emotional high point of the story. Do you think Miranda July is trying to offer some sort of comfort to her readers by identifying the universality of loneliness and by allowing us to see these characters?
C: I suppose there is a certain comfort or empathy that Miranda July offers the reader with her bleak snapshots of lost connection. For me, though, she takes the isolation and alienation too far—a lot of the stories in this collection lack a certain sense of exuberance that will me to read on. After a few of these stories you kind of feel numb to the sense of alienation, and it loses its sharpness. It’s not enough to just feel complicit with these characters’ loneliness. Even though the characters may be castrated and alone in the woods, I felt as a reader I sometimes needed more of a sense of spirit or tenderness to propel myself forward through some of the stories. That’s one of the reasons I think STNN is a stronger and more successful story than TTT.
E: Do you think there is a kind of fetishization of loneliness going on, either by the characters or by MJ, herself? The very first line of STNN is: “In an ideal world, we would have been orphans.” There is something so hyper-stylized and almost clinically detached about the vignettes of loneliness MJ portrays that I can’t help but feel like she creates them to revel in their beauty. What do you think?
C: I totally agree. This is sort of what I was trying to get at in the last question—it’s all in the way she freeze-frames her characters at the moments when their vulnerability is most intensified, forcing you to stare at it and consume it in this kind of grotesque way. Fetishization of loneliness is a good way to put it, I think. She does it extremely well, too. Like how the narrator in TTT says “past a certain age, they give up on the name games, which is regrettable for someone like me who loves anything that involves going around a circle and saying something about yourself. I wish there was a class where we could just keep going around the circle, around and around until we had finally said everything about ourselves” (136). That kind of sums the stories up, in a way.
E: One parallel I noticed between the stories picks up on that theme of potential emotional hollowness. In STNN, there is the moment after Pip leaves the protagonist alone in the apartment and she just freezes with one foot dangling above the tub. Likewise, in TTT, there is the moment when the protagonist freezes in the living room after Ellen leaves. In both cases, the protagonists present arresting tableaux, but it all seems so self-conscious. Does something about the characters’ self-awareness undermine the beauty or emotional depth of MJ’s visions of loneliness?
C: Whoa, I have been inadvertently answering this question through other questions, I think. Yeah, she does these freezy tableaux so frequently! It almost starts to seem silly when you start noticing all of them. I found they have varying degrees of effectiveness. For example, I like the one where Pip and the narrator are with Tammy in her bedroom because it’s funny and real, but I agree that the examples you mentioned do feel self-conscious. There is something very writer-y about these moments too. Because they are so hyper-stylized, you feel the presence of the author in this kind of clunky way.
E: While I love Miranda July’s writing overall, I can sometimes feel really unsatisfied with its neutral tone. As you suggest, there’s something unintentional about the lack of passion in her stories and the characters can feel flat because they are all sort of relegated to their losses. It’s rare that we experience the stakes. It’s almost like you want to like July’s writing and that’s what carries it sometimes. You want to like the characters—
C: But it doesn’t really inspire something. It’s like, okay, you’re not really making a statement anymore about people being apathetic and alienated and disconnected. We get that. People are fucked, so what? You start to expect something more, but she just rides on her coattails after a little while.
E: I guess the honesty is evocative. Life can be pretty dismal, but then it’s like, alright … I mean, we shouldn’t put this responsibility on her to give us hope, but there is sort of this self-satisfied, cut-off tone, that is beautiful enough that she’s captured this alienation, and that’s all we need.
C: And in some stories, that’s true, but I think there’s something deeper that she sometimes does, like in STNN.
E: Yeah, yeah!
C: Yeah, there’s something more to that story that’s lacking in the other stories. Maybe the collection as a whole falls short of that.
E: Maybe that’s why you sort of like her, because there’s something so unpredictable about those moments.I can’t help thinking it’s really ironic to talk about this while listening to Joni Mitchell because—
Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon has been playing in the background of the café where we’ve been talking.
—I feel like Joni Mitchel is all about wearing her emotions on her sleeve. I love Joni Mitchell, but I feel like there’s something very “unhip” about her music according to today’s ironic standards.
C: You mean you couldn’t be making this music today and expect people to take it seriously in the same way?
E: Exactly. And Miranda July represents very much what is considered cool now, and maybe I just resent that. It’s the same with Lena Dunham’s Girls. These contemporary documents irk us because they reflect something true, some real apathy.
C: I wonder: will these stories resonate with women in their 20s in 2050? Or are they just a time capsule? I’m cynical about this. It’s interesting thinking about Miranda July fitting into this whole cartography of Sheila Heti and Lena Dunham and [the women from July’s helmed letter-writing project, We Think Alone, which also includes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kirsten Dunst, the fashion designers behind Rodarte, Kate and Laura Mulleavy and several other talented contributors].
E: Do you think writing about female friendships facilitates a certain kind of politics among female artists themselves?
C: There’s something meta about what they’re all doing together. Connecting their projects through various creative networks.
E: I don’t know that for me, ultimately, this collection says that much about female friendship, but maybe it does something cool by drawing you into conversation with contemporary artists.
E: My last question takes us a bit off course from the topic of female friendship, but I have to ask: What did you make of the character, Sue, the abstract sewer who ends up naked in the centre of the sewing-class party in TTT? Is July throwing us a red herring here, or do you see Sue as a metaphor for freedom that both the protagonist and Ellen crave, but cannot quite allow themselves to understand or identify with?
C: I hadn’t really thought about Sue, but that’s a really good point. I love the idea of her being a metaphor for freedom or a little spark of jouissance in an otherwise bleak landscape. She’s also just possesses that wonderful magical weirdness that only characters in a short story can pull off.
What are your thoughts about Miranda July’s stories? Share your views in a comment or send an email to email@example.com.
Stay tuned for next month’s installment of Reading Alone Together.