In the author photo on Miranda July’s new collection of short stories, No One Belongs Here More than You, July could just as well be wearing a certain young girls’ t-shirt. Not a shirt with a team logo or with cartoon characters, and certainly not a boys’ shirt with vigilante fighters and explosions behind them. This would be a pink shirt, and it’d be dabbled all over with hearts. Miranda July is into love. And, like a girl who takes toy soldiers and re-commissions them into a family, she manages to overlay love onto any setting — an adult education center, a peep show, a sewing class. July knows that we long for love far more than we ever have love, even when it’s laying right beside us. And so these stories pursue love from this vantage point, from an imaginative distance, where the lonesome, ecstatic longing is strongest.
The first story of the book, “The Shared Patio,” begins “It still counts, even though it happened when he was unconscious.” A married neighbor is struck with a seizure, immobile and unaware, and the narrator, partly from helplessness, can’t resist napping beside him as she fantasizes that he secretly loves her the most:
Did you ever love her?
No, not really.
Even though I have no pizzazz?
What are you talking about, you perfect thing?
You can see that I’m perfect?
It’s in each thing that you do.
He was unconscious as she imagines this but “it still counts” because it was felt and because feelings have inalienable rights in July’s charmingly empathic world.
The rest of the stories, all with their own wonderful oddness and invention, follow in theme and feel. The style of writing feels casually elegant, conversational in tone, yet swelling in sentiment to leave a lasting emotional resonance. The characters tend to lead unremarkable lives, all of them very intimate with disappointment, and all hoping to be recognized as perfectly full of pizzazz by just one other person.
The stories all seem to say, here, it doesn’t have to be so hard; love and the end of guilt are only a touch away. (And the characters are all heavily saddled with guilt, blaming themselves first and everyone else last.) The woman with the epileptic neighbor whispers, “It’s not your fault. Perhaps this was really the only thing I had wanted to say to anyone, and be told.” One story, “This Person,” expands on this fantasy of everything suddenly being alright:
Someone is getting excited. Somebody somewhere is shaking with excitement because something tremendous is about to happen to this person … 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, we were only kidding, real life is much better than that.
The absurdity of such hopelessly human desires is never lost on July, and, in fact, much of her understated humor makes its points through such purposefully naive notions. Her narrators express gentle exasperation with life’s indifferent hardships. A sleeping woman who’s sure there’s a man climbing her stairs to kill her quickly appraises her life, including the state of her imperfect friendships: “I thought these were just my starter friends and the real ones would come along later.”
There’s a fascinating discord to each of July’s stories, much of which is very directly sexual. In “Majesty,” a middle-aged woman becomes fixated on Price William. Realizing they “come from long lines of people destined never to meet,” she thinks up a scheme for capturing the prince’s attention in a bar and, winning his immediate and absolute love, compels him very literally inside of her:
Ask my breasts, my forty-six-year-old breasts.
And he would yell into them, muffled: Let me in, let me in!
And my stomach.
Let me in, let me in!
Get down on your knees, Your Highness, and ask my vagina, that ugly beast.
Let me in, let me in, let me in.
And quite often the sexual aspects are a little jarring, as in “The Moves,” where a father teaches his daughter the twelve fingering moves he guarantees will get a woman off, and in “The Sister,” where an old man is unwittingly goaded into some very uncomfortable sex with a male friend.
The worst you can accuse July of is cuteness. One story, for instance, centers around a woman teaching a group to swim in her kitchen, each person dousing isolated parts of themselves with water from a bowl, which seems more like a skit without a point compared with the far more meaningful stories in the book. July’s other art work often strays into similar territory. One project, “Learning to Love You More,” offers assignments such as “make a child’s outfit in an adult size” and “draw a constellation from someone’s freckles”. Whether you find such ideas endearing or merely easy largely depends on your sensibilities. Fortunately, all of July’s work is suffused with charisma and sincerity, and, frivolous or not, they’re easy to enjoy.
The book closes on one of the most sincere but unnoted forms of love: that of a friend’s children. In a narration spanning twenty years, which somehow manages to remain personal despite the skimming of years, a woman watches as a former crush of hers goes through a farce of a marriage, producing a daughter that she comes to care for as often as the parents. Her own relationships simply don’t materialize, but the deep and selfless affection for her friend’s daughter becomes the strongest bond she’s ever known despite gradually losing centrality in the girl’s life. As the character in the first story might have said, it still counts, even though no one else in the whole world noticed.