A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
In the summer of 2009, Miranda July was struggling to finish writing the screenplay for her much-anticipated second film. During her increasingly long lunch breaks, she began to obsessively read the PennySaver, the iconic classifieds booklet that reached everywhere and seemed to come from nowhere. Who was the person selling the “Large leather Jacket, $10”? It seemed important to find out – or at least it was a great distraction from the screenplay. Accompanied by photographer Brigitte Sire, July crisscrossed Los Angeles to meet a random selection of PennySaver sellers, glimpsing thirteen surprisingly moving and profoundly specific realities, along the way shaping her film, and herself, in unexpected ways. Elegantly blending narrative, interviews, and photographs with July’s off-kilter honesty and deadpan humor, this is a story of procrastination and inspiration, isolation and connection, and grabbing hold of the invisible world.
When Trilby and Jenn reviewed Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You on Vulpes Libris, some of the discussion was turned towards the author herself, rather than the short story collection in question, and I was left with the impression that Miranda July is one of those very cool, self-absorbed, middle-class artist types who both attracts and repels her core audience.
This preconception turned out to be fairly accurate, for this member of July’s audience at least. In It Chooses You, Miranda July does come across as a fairly neurotic person. But she is also painfully honest, self-critical and hyper-aware of the weirdness inherent in modern life, and I found myself growing fond of her.
This story takes place in 2009, right after our wedding. I was writing a screenplay in the little house. I wrote it at the kitchen table, or in my old bed with its thrift-store sheets. Or, as anyone who has tried to write anything recently knows, these are the places where I set the stage for writing but instead looked things up online. Some of this could be justified because one of the characters in my screenplay was also trying to make something, a dance, but instead of dancing she looked up dances on YouTube. So, in a way, this procrastination was research. As if I didn’t already know how it felt: like watching myself drift out to sea, too captivated by the waves to call for help. I was jealous of older writers who had gotten more of a toehold on their discipline before the web came. I had gotten to write only one script and one book before this happened.
The funny thing about my procrastination was that I was almost done with the screenplay. I was a person who had fought dragons and lost limbs and crawled through swamps and now, finally, the castle was visible. I could see tiny children waving flags on the balcony; all I had to do was walk across a field to get to them. But all of a sudden I was very, very sleepy. And the children couldn’t believe their eyes as I folded down to my knees and fell to the ground face-first, with my eyes open. Motionless, I watched ants hurry in and out of a hole and I knew that standing up again would be a thousand times harder than the dragon or the swamp and so I did not even try. I just clicked on one thing after another after another.
To shake herself out of crushing inactivity, July decides to answer an ad in the PennySaver, which is where people without computers go to sell their bric-a-brac and other wares. To a writer obsessed with and distracted by the internet, these computerless people are fascinating. Who sells things through a free circular? Who reads the ads? Who is comfortable enough in this age of perpetual fear and panic, to knock on the door of a stranger, in order to buy some bargain Care Bears? Because in this millennium every unknown person is a nutter with an axe on their lap just waiting to take your head off.
And Miranda July knows a thing or two about paranoia. As she puts it, rather hilariously:
In my paranoid world every storekeeper thinks I’m stealing, every man thinks I’m a prostitute or a lesbian, every woman thinks I’m a lesbian or arrogant, and every child and animal sees the real me and it is evil.
July doesn’t visit the ad-placers by herself. Her wedding photographer Brigitte Sire accompanies her to take photographs, and a male assistant, Alfred, is supposedly there to deter potential rapists. Even with her wingpeople, some of these missions into such foreign (and often very working-class) territory are disturbing to Miranda as is evinced by her descriptions of the ad-placers, who are quirky individuals with interesting fascinations and hobbies, and sad stories to tell. I couldn’t help but wonder how many less interesting individuals selling cards or luggage, did not make the grade and were cut from inclusion in the book. Perhaps though, they all happened to be odd enough to make good reading.
Miranda July is very good on failure. She understands well the experience of trying and failing. Things have always been tough for artists but the crumbling economy has made the gatekeepers and money-men even less likely to take risks on new film-makers.
In the time it had taken me to write the movie, the economy had turned to dust. Suddenly all the companies that had been so excited to meet me a year ago were not financing anything that didn’t star Natalie Portman. Which kind of brought out the Riot Grrrl in me – I walked out of polite meetings in Beverly Hills with visions of turning around and walking back in, naked, with something perfect scrawled across my stomach in black marker. But what was the perfect response to logical, cautious soulessness? I didn’t know.
As I read on and heard more about July’s encounters with the sellers, I started to feel a bit uncomfortable. Was it quite right to put people who placed ads in the PennySaver under such forensic scrutiny? Walking into their lives, asking invasive questions, photographing their belongings, and then writing a book about them; wasn’t that a bit, well, exploitative? Was It Chooses You, in fact, a grandiose game of Show and Tell? How patronising. Yes, the ad-placers make for interesting reading, but are they treated here like freak show specimens? “Roll up! Roll up! Come and look at the working-class! The toys of beloved dead pets are kept in a bucket suspended from the ceiling! A grown man has fantasies of having a family of his own and just look at this collage of mother and baby pictures on his wall! This woman has made us a fruit salad with marshmallow in it, come and gawk before I throw it in the trash!”
The uncomfortable feeling gave way to irritation. Intellectual artist type dips her toe into the grime of poverty and uses it to make herself look more street, more real, less concerned with the material and more in tune with the essentials.
Even as I write that, I realize it isn’t fair, as not all of the people July visits are poor. Primila, for instance, is an Indian woman who lives in a very grand house and she is only using the PennySaver to reach people who might like to buy outfits from India for five dollars, and this isn’t part of a get-rich(er)-quick scheme for Primila; the money isn’t even for her. Primila is raising money to send to an Indian village so that the people there may buy an irrigation system.
Then I was faced with another problem, despite the gnawing feeling of wrongness, I really, truly loved the book. Miranda July is a beautiful writer and constructs a sentence like no other. I was captivated by each person and their story, and I adored July for telling her own story so frankly, and giving us such an unflinching insight into her own disordered life and psyche. By the time I reached the book’s sad ending, I was weeping buckets and vowing to get my friends to buy It Chooses You because I had decided it was the most perceptive book ever written.
And then, the next day, the uneasy feeling came back again, the conviction that it was somehow wrong to display the ad-placers in this way. Had they signed up for this? I mean, yes, literally, they probably signed some paperwork in exchange for their fifty dollars, but fifty dollars is soon spent and then what were they left with? Ridicule? A bunch of strangers humming and hawing over them as their legacy? A foreign book blogger weeping over her toast because of a misfortune they had once suffered?
How would I feel if July had visited my mother’s house? My mum would definitely have welcomed her inside for a cup of tea and she would have talked incessantly. And what she said might have been a reflection of her in that moment, the side of her that she reserves for strangers, but it wouldn’t necessarily have been a reflection of the whole of her. Her words, written down verbatim, might have seemed ridiculous. People say awkward things when they are nervous or aware that a writer is listening. But to get a sense of a person, I think you have to go beyond conversation, beyond the stories they present in a one hour interview. I think you have to know them. And Miranda July doesn’t know these people. They are interesting little vignettes, which she documents beautifully, but I don’t think she gets to the truth of any of them.
So I read the book again, tapping its walls for hollow parts, but again I was swept along in the stylishness of the writing and the boldness of the project. Which is when I realized what was irritating me most: the author’s honesty. And it irritated me because I realized, mortifyingly, that I had become a self-censoring person. I would even redact passages of my novels, lest they offend the people I love or somehow bring bad luck down upon them. Miranda July does not self-censor. She says it all. She writes without being affected by the supposed reactions of the people she is writing about. And that is something that made me deeply envious. On the first page of the book, she describes moments of her life when she has acted bravely and without dwelling on the consequences:
When I finally put my clothes in black plastic bags and drove them over to his house, it was with a sort of daredevil spirit – the same way I had cut off all my hair in high school, or dropped out of college. It was impetuous, sure to end in disaster, but fuck it.
The same daredevil writes It Chooses You. Miranda July knows exactly what kind of criticism a book like this will attract, but she writes it anyway, because as she might say, fuck it. And who knows, perhaps a bit more daredevil spirit in this age of “logical, cautious soulessness” would be a good thing.
Canongate Books Ltd (1 Dec 2011), ISBN-13: 978-0857862549, 224 pages, hardcover. Digital editions available.
Lisa has just released a teen novel, SNAKE BEACH, which is available in e-book form here.