If you took the type of unashamedly and refreshingly defective characters you’d find in a Kurt Vonnegut novel and then ran them through a filter of an incredibly bad acid trip, you might end up with the kinds of heartbreakingly broken but movingly real narrators who show up in Miranda July’s powerful “No one belongs here more than you.”
July’s work reminds us why the short story is so much more difficult to write than the novel: you have to accomplish so much more in so much less space – the delineation of a believable character that both develops and inspires compassion and empathy but is compelling and alien enough to leave conundrums in the mind.
These characters pass unnoticed on the street, and slip easily in between other passengers on the subway, chameleons of normalcy. Their strangeness, their sheer otherness, sometimes bordering on or crossing over into outright danger, remains hidden, swimming like sharks under the murky surface, glimpsed for a second and gone.
The narrator of “The Shared Patio” is oblivious to any sense of measured reaction when her neighbor appears to fall into unconsciousness, opting instead to stare entranced into the eyes of a photographed whale on the side of the fridge in his apartment.
The “coach” of “Swim Team” recounts the nonsensical dry swimming lessons she gave to local octogenarians, yet beneath the absurd there is all the fragility and yearning that is found in any human connection. That same fragility and yearning swims in circles under the slowly expanding awkwardness of the fictitious sister who never shows up for dates with the narrator of “The Sister,” until finally the idea of the sister is relegated by an MDMA-infused encounter with the brother, an encounter draped in all the gritty chalky hazy blur that goes along with fuzzy unplanned sexuality under the influence.
The relationships enter the territory of the outright inappropriate in “The Boy from Lam Kien” and “Making Love in 2003,” yet the narrators display no cognizance of what might normally be construed as a generally accepted set of moral codes. Their worlds are illuminated and foggy, crisp in the telling yet mind-aching in their difficulty to grasp, and within those worlds these narrators are comfortable in their own confident certainty about how the world works, what they are entitled to, and what is right and wrong. That alienness belies the shared understanding of a common system of ethics which underpins the delicate illusion of a functioning society of individuals operating under mutually agreed principles. There’s no agreement at work here, this collection seems to say, just the barest chance that two or more humans will ever connect in anything more substantial and significant or meaningful than two hands brushing accidentally against each other in a subway car.
And yet, if those eyes can meet your eyes in forgiveness and remembrance, perhaps, like Lyon’s eyes in “How to tell stories to children,” they will be “sparkling with the old love, the greatest love of my lifetime.” And maybe, like Lyon’s eyes, having seen through all the dysfunction and hurt, the betrayal and lies, those eyes will be “triumphant.”