by Miranda July with photographs by Brigitte Sire
For once, I'm reviewing the most recent book I've read. My reading has far, far outpaced my review-writing the past few months, but this is a library book. External deadlines! That's what I need! To be honest, I picked up It Chooses You on a whim. It was around the corner from Colson Whitehead's Zone One, which I'd just plucked from the 'New Books' section. Though I remember getting an email from McSweeney's talking about the book's release last year, I had no idea what it was about, and I didn't even read the back of the book until I got it home and had already read twenty pages. Not to get too heavy-handed with the metaphor, but despite a stack of books at home, this book chose me.
"Oh, it's funny you brought that home," my husband said that evening. "I just heard her on NPR today, talking about this book. Sounds interesting." The fates had conspired, perhaps.
Previously, my knowledge of Miranda July was limited to watching Me, You, and Everyone We Know, which I liked well enough, and seeing a handful of online videos regarding her art projects. I haven't read any of her other books, though I faintly recall one of her short stories in the New Yorker. A friend of mine declared her, "one of my all-time favorite people," and I'd mentally filed her away as "someone I should investigate more, at some point." Being me, I tend to forget these things unless there's a physical or online note to remind me, and even then, sometimes I need those reminders to smack me upside the head. My brain ain't what it used to be.
So instead of doing all the good things I'd decided upon more recently — like better sleep, writing those ten reviews piling up, finally writing that story/essay/whatever, folding another load of laundry — I started this "meant to investigate" from years prior.
Or, as anyone who has tried to write anything recently knows, these are the places I set the stage for writing but instead looked up things 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.
I used to write more of everything when I was living in the boonies and forced to use dial-up.
Having reached a "stuck" point in her screenplay, The Future, July distracted herself by reading the PennySaver. She didn't really want return to her script, or to mindlessly wander the internet that day, so she decided to call the number listed with a leather jacket for sale. "The implied rule of the classifieds is you call the phone number only to talk about the item for sale," she says. "But the other rule, always, is that this is a free country, and I was trying hard to feel my freedom. This might be my only chance to feel free all day."
Armed with snacks, a tape recorder, and fifty dollars to pay the person for the interview, she set out with a photographer, Brigitte, and her assistant, Alfred. She wanted to know more about the people behind these ads — their hopes, their fears, how they got through their days. Her very first interview was with Michael:
[…] a man in his late sixties, burly, broad-shouldered, a bulbous nose, a magenta blouse, boobs, pink lipstick. Before he opened the door completely he quietly stated that he was going through a gender transformation. That's great, I said, and he asked us to please come in. […] I glanced at my questions, but now they seemed beside the point.
Each interview is accompanied with a portrait of the person and a photo of the item being sold, along with a few other environmental shots — calendars, pets, bedrooms. Without the photos, I think the interview transcripts would lack a certain poignancy. Not everyone is such a surprise "reveal" like Michael, but everyone has a very distinct story. There's the 17-year-old kid, Andrew, who sells bullfrog tadpoles and wonders what college will be like. There's the well-off Indian woman, Primila, who sells handmade outfits from India to help with building an irrigation system in one of the villages. Dina is a woman with magenta eyebrows and multiple piercings, selling an old Conair hairdryer for $5. "The thing is, I love decoration. I like art," she says about her distinctive style. "So why not?"
I clicked through all the pictures Brigitte had taken so far. What was I looking for? I supposed I was looking for calendars. And there they were. Everyone had them, and they were all hardworking calendars. They seemed weirdly compulsive for a moment, as if I'd stumbled on a group of calendar fanatics, and then I remembered that we all used to have these, until very, very recently. We all laid our intricately handwritten lives across the grid and then put it on the wall for everyone to see. For a split second I could feel the way things were, the way time used to feel, before computers.
It's not that July is going on an anti-tech fast by interviewing these people who predominantly do not use computers, or by avoiding her own computer — it's more that she realized how quickly the way we live changes. And since she's always interested in how people get through their day, the differences and changes are worth noting. She is interested in how people connect.
Eventually, the interviews bring her back to thinking about The Future, and what she should do with the one character that gave her trouble. I won't spoil it, but it's lovely.
Really, It Chooses You was a great surprise, and I loved reading it. Its sincerity snuck up on me and reminded me of my own way of speaking to people. Frequently do I say I want to know the stories behind people, creators of art and otherwise, and I love how July puts herself into her projects because not doing so would be dishonest. Of course she's invested — this is how she lives her life, in the orbit of the day-to-day with other people. We are all in this together, after all.
More than once, I have had people tell me — particularly the menfolk — that I get them to talk. That they are not usually in the habit of discussing their lives, their concerns, their interests. "Why do you want to know?" they ask. "What does it matter?" Because I'm curious, I say. Because I find you interesting. Because I like knowing what led people to where they are now, all those great stories, the hidden and the perfected. Give me an anecdote or a confession. Give me all the rest of that good stuff. Be forewarned though, like July, I will likely end up writing about you. Your name may not be in the text itself, but you'll be there, your words floating in and out, shining up the place. It's not about making you uncomfortable; it's about you knowing that you are worth hearing.
This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.