We know Neanderthals could think abstractly because they thought abstractly about death. They buried tools and the bones of sacrificed animals with their dead, and may have made up stories about the afterlife. Myths and rituals have always been "rooted in the experience of death and the fear of extinction" and have forced us "to go beyond our experience," according to Karen Armstrong's A Short History of Myth. Thinking beyond experience was crucial for human development, because there were more-immediate things on the minds of early humans, such as "Can I eat that?" and "Who's this lady?" and, when the sun rose, "Wow, cool, pink."
Myths are the best tools humans have ever come up with. They keep most people from sinking into total despair; they give us something constant to hold on to in a universe defined by flux; they provide moral systems and heroes to emulate; they "extend the scope of human beings" the way science and technology have allowed us to walk on the moon, Armstrong says, because after all, myths are "not about opting out of this world, but about enabling us to live more intensely within it." And because of what they have always reminded us (that we are dying), they make us want to create things (books, films, babies) that will live on after we die and that we can read and watch and hold until that time comes.
This might be a myth. I wasn't there. But according to someone who was, Miranda July, when she was an artist in her 20s living in Portland, Oregon, went to a house party where she and her then-boyfriend got into a fight. He was accusing her of flirting with someone else, berating her, snapping at her, messing with her, and she was messing with him back. It ended with July in the front yard lifting her dress over her head and calling out, "I'm a slut! I'm a slut!"
This anecdote tells us a few things. For one, that she's the kind of person who did things at parties years ago that people continue to talk about (or if it isn't true, that she's inspired some awesome stories). For another, that she is the kind of person who walks into the mouth of the dragon. You see this everywhere in her work: She doesn't back down from squirmy stuff; she is unafraid of bodies; she pursues things to their perverse ends.
July was born in 1974 and raised in Berkeley, California, by parents who published New Age books. She dropped out of college in her sophomore year, moved to Portland, and taught herself to be an artist. Her dauntlessness is always mentioned in reviews. In an article about July's 2005 debut feature film, Me and You and Everyone We Know—she wrote, directed, and starred in it—London's Observer observed: "Critics are using words like 'fresh,' 'moving,' 'original,' 'uplifting,' 'poetic,' 'daring,' and all of them are true." What everyone remembers about that film—and what July reportedly had to convince censors to let her keep—was the subplot involving the 6-year-old boy who starts chatting online with a grown woman about poop. The woman on the other end of the conversation believes she's flirting with an adult, and gets turned on, and at the end of the movie they meet.
What fewer people talked about were the movie's mythic, almost tribal overtones; its fascination with ritual and gesture; and its incantatory images of nature. The first shot of the movie is of a color-saturated sunset, and the last is of a blood-red sun just starting to rise. Almost every critic used either "quirky" or "offbeat" in their review of Me and You and Everyone We Know, often followed by the words "romantic comedy," and it's true there was quirky, romantic stuff in it, but I think the marketing (cute, pastel, whimsical) threw everyone. One of July's talents is making death the subtext of ordinary, often funny, situations—so that it seems like she's not dealing with death when, actually, she's never not dealing with it.
Like the scene in the film when July's character, whose job is driving around people too old to drive themselves, notices a goldfish in a plastic bag riding on top of another car. She and her passenger—an old man (death) with a dying girlfriend (death) who's obsessed with Mayan ruins (death)—realize that, as soon as the other car slows down, the goldfish is going to go flying. "I guess these are its last moments on earth," July's character says. "Should we say some words?"
Another character in Me and You and Everyone We Know is a shoe salesman and father of two whose wife is leaving him. Since this is a big deal, he wants to "have some kind of ceremony." Self-immolation is what pops into his head, and in the opening shots of the movie he lights himself on fire. Later, this guy becomes July's love interest in a scene that takes place on a sidewalk. The two flirt with one another by imagining the block of sidewalk as the span of their lives. They get to the end of the block and she says, "Well, it can't be avoided. Everyone dies."
"I could walk you to your car," he says.
"Maybe we should just be glad that we lived this long, good life together. You know it's so much more than most people ever get to have."
"Don't be afraid," she says.
"Here we go."
"Here we go," he says, and walks away without turning back.
The year Me and You and Everyone We Know came out must have been a frustrating year for other independent filmmakers. The film picked up awards everywhere it went, including the Special Jury Prize at Sundance and the Camera d'Or at Cannes. If the teachings of Morrissey are true, that we hate it when our friends become successful, July's friends must despise her. She is at the top of several fields simultaneously—the film world (Sundance, Cannes), the art world (her video, sound, and internet-based art has been in two of the last three Whitney Biennials), and the literary world (her short stories have been published by the Paris Review and the New Yorker). Right now, I'm paying a Seattle gallery owner in installments for a photo-based print July made in a limited series years ago. Plus the million live things she's done in living rooms and on trains and in performance venues around the world.
But she's fundamentally a storyteller, a writer with an ancient heart, even though all the pictures Google's image search comes up with have her looking good and young. Her first book, a collection of short stories called No One Belongs Here More than You, comes out this week, and while it's hilarious from sentence one, it confirms that her driving obsessions are death, the body, and the yawning silence of oblivion. In early reviews, maybe because the book comes in either pink or yellow, critics aren't quite seeing this. They're seeing it the way they saw her movie: this funny, weird, offbeat, quirky book about a bunch of wild and crazy people living in wild and crazy contemporary America. Library Journal's reviewer writes: "July brings her trademark whimsy to this debut story collection," as if she has suitcases stuffed with the stuff, as if whimsy were her point.
Granted, it's easy to be thrown off by the humor. Take the first story, "The Shared Patio," which begins:
It still counts, even though it happened when he was unconscious. It counts doubly because the conscious mind often makes mistakes, falls for the wrong person. But down there in the well, where there is no light and only thousand-year-old water, a man has no reason to make mistakes. God says do it and you do it. Love her and it is so. He is my neighbor. His name is Vincent Chang.
Vincent has a girlfriend, but one afternoon when she isn't around, Vincent and the story's narrator are sitting on a patio. He pauses and squints up at the sun. The narrator: "I guessed he was constructing the perfect question for me, a fantastic question that I would have to rise up to, drawing from everything I knew about myself and mythology and this black earth." Instead, Vincent says something kind of mundane, then lurches forward, then freezes. He's having an epileptic seizure. The narrator pulls her chair up close to him and, instead of doing something, puts her head on his shoulder and falls asleep and dreams that he is in love with her. Vincent's girlfriend arrives, panics, sends the narrator into the kitchen, and on the fridge the narrator sees a picture of a whale and imagines a whale dying, falling slowly through the ocean while all the other fish watch, and she leans over and whispers to the photo, "It's not your fault." Quirky, right? Offbeat, whimsical, weird, "McSweeney's-esque"?
I guess so, but losing consciousness is a kind of death, and negligence is a kind of death, and a dead whale is definitely death, and thousand-year-old water has cycled through unnumbered dead animals, and no light is one of the conditions of death, and God is the arbiter of death, and a sentence like "Love her and it is so" is written to remind you of the Bible (a deathy book). And the narrator works for a printer that publishes a magazine called Positive. If it weren't for the ads, you would think it was "a magazine about staying positive, as in upbeat." It's for people with HIV.
No One Belongs Here More than You is full of jokes, but they're death jokes. The rest of the world might be constructed to make us forget about death, but July's work sends you toward it every time. There's a story set in a nursing home, and a guy brings his parents shoulder totes in pebbled leather, and the narrator thinks, "It didn't seem like his parents would ever stand again, and shoulder totes really demand standing." There's a story about a teacher who sleeps with one of her students, which isn't hard to pull off: "We learned to be discreet. It helped that nobody really cares about anyone but themselves anyway. They check to make sure you aren't killing anyone, anyone they know, and then they go back to what they were saying about how they think they might be having a real breakthrough in their relationship with themselves." (That kills me, that "anyone they know.") There's a story narrated by a woman whose house has just been broken into, and from her bed she can hear the intruder slowly climbing the stairs:
He seemed to have all the time in the world for this, my God, did he have time. I have never taken such care with anything. That is my problem with life, I rush through it, like I'm being chased. Even things whose whole point is slowness, like drinking relaxing tea. When I drink relaxing tea, I suck it down like I'm in a contest for who can drink relaxing tea the quickest. Or if I'm in a hot tub with some other people and we're all looking up at the stars, I'll be the first to say, It's so beautiful here. The sooner you say, It's so beautiful here, the quicker you can say, Wow, I'm getting overheated.
Her interior monologue is the story, and it spins in all directions, punctuated by her fears about the intruder: "I was going to die and it was taking forever."
The tone of the book is casual but oracular. Tuesday "is famously a good day for mail." A girl sitting on the floor next to a chair is "always a bad sign"—it's "best to just sit in chairs, to eat when hungry, to sleep and rise and work." Sometimes images call up the whole of human history. In one of the best stories, "Something That Needs Nothing," a woman who's been reduced to taking a job in a booth at Mr. Peeps Adult Video Store and More—and is feeling pretty weird about it—waits out the time between customers by staring at the fluorescent lights in the ceiling: "I looked up at them and imagined that they, not the stars, had hung over the long creation of civilization. They had droned over the ice ages and Neanderthals, and now they droned over me."
It doesn't seem like a morbid book—it's got a lot of other things in it, like lesbians, Koreans, people who don't know how to swim, a dog named Potato, Madeleine L'Engle's living room—but it's crowded with death jokes: conceptual ones, throwaway lines, etc. Writers write because they don't want to die. The good ones at least. They might say their favorite subject is the black American experience or the situation in Turkey, but it's really death. Funny-guy fiction writer George Saunders once told an interviewer: "I aspire to write stuff that takes into account the fact that we are all dying."
We are going to die and it's taking forever.
Coincidentally, Saunders has a blurb on July's book. He says the stories "skip past the quotidian, the merely real, to the essential..." and "are (let me coin a phrase) July-esque." At least he didn't say they were "offbeat." July is not off the beat. She is beating the beat that human beings have been beating since the beginning.