By Miranda July
Text Publishing, NZ$28 | Reviewed by Amy Brown

PROLIFIC and distinctive Miranda July, writer, director and star of American indie success Me and You and Everyone We Know, has now released her debut collection of short stories, every bit as uncomfortably whimsical and oddly real as her other work.

Directors or actors who start writing books are often accused of using their fame to get published. I had to quell such prejudices against July. A large, actorish author photo, with July in a child-like summer dress, tears on the brink of welling in her blank blue eyes, didn’t help me. However, having read the book, gone to the book’s website (which I recommend; it’s like a scene from one of her stories), and forgiven the photo, no one belongs here more than you began to look a lot more promising. Of the sixteen stories in this collection, eleven have been previously published in a range of impressive journals such as The Paris Review, Harper’s, The New Yorker and Zoetrope. Although her reputation in other fields might have given July an advantage here, I like to think that it also gives her stories some credibility.

That fearless, taboo-breaking tendency seen in July’s films manifests itself in her stories quite disconcertingly. The majority of the book, written in the first person, tackles periods of emotional disorder in her character’s lives. Often female, almost always attempting to improve themselves in some way, July’s characters teach the elderly to swim with bowls of water in the kitchen, fall in love with their disabled students, prostitute themselves to pay the rent, have sexual relationships with their fathers, therapists and bosses’ wives. There is no shame or coyness in the telling of July’s stories – her characters are very human animals, conscious of the physical size and behaviour of their bodies in relation to others’, frequently washing before having unorthodox sex. Love and loneliness are mentioned often throughout the collection, but equally often and equally interestingly July taps into the way that shame and fear motivate people to make bizarre decisions.

I’m describing her stories collectively because the tone, ideas, characters and shape of them are so similar. Published separately in journals, many of these stories would make quite an impact – their immediacy, strangeness, and July’s confident dialogue undiluted. But grouped together, each of July’s first person narratives begin rolling into one. This in itself is a curious effect, but does not benefit every story. I will say though, that by the finale, ‘How to Tell Stories to Children’, which is one of the strongest and longest of July’s stories, the similar tone running through the book had accumulated effectively.

July’s longer stories – ‘Something that Needs Nothing’ and ‘Making Love in 2003’ – seem to work better, perhaps because the uncomfortable scenes which, in a smaller story could seem gratuitous, are bolstered by a more substantial plot. Some of her shorter stories, such as ‘This Person’ and ‘The Moves’, ride too heavily on one quirky idea.

Like many first collections, July’s debut as a short story writer has its weak points. But, these are, for the most part, drowned out by her generously confessional and immediate voice. July is not just an actor/artist/director dabbling in a new form – she is a writer, all be it a new one, in her own right.