Don DeLillo is my favorite. Don DeLillo is like an old writing teacher of mine. I would say something to her: "gender identity disorder is a mental illness according to the DSM-IV" or something, and she would say "Oh" or "Huh" and frown and fall into silence until I doubted the validity of what I had said, doubted the validity of everything I had ever said, and then she would turn back to me and respond to the story in a terrifying and oblique way: "Once I visited a triage ward for lesbian mental patients in the thirties, and there were tic-tac-toe boards scratched into the walls." It would not be a direct response to what I had said, but it would be somehow inspired by what I had said. All communication would be faulty, would fail to connect, but there would be this understanding that some attempt at communication was required. There would be this understanding that another person was present, that writing and reading fiction means that you owe a college try to one another.
This is what reading Don DeLillo makes me think of and I suspect that it's the best that fiction writers are normally capable of as human beings. The point, I think, is that fiction writers are terrible people who view other people with some mixture of hate, fear, obligation and condescension. This is the Four Humors Theory of writers.
But then there is Miranda July, who seems to actually like people, who seems able to express that like for people without condescension. This is alarming and rare. I am not sure that I like this quality.
This is what previously bothered me about Tao Lin: it was obvious on reading Eee Ee Eeeee (or whatever combination of letters it was) that mainstream Serious Literature was going to have to go in this direction, and it's silly to dispute that. What disappointed me so much about Tao Lin's book was that I thought he was missing some fundamental sense of responsibility, some fundamental sense that what we do when we write fiction is attempt to interact with other human beings somehow--or rather that he had that sense, but considered sociopathy to be the highest form of human interaction. It is very, very depressing to realize that someone has developed a cool literary style for the sake of presenting a world devoid of all value or meaning or even basic coherence, and it's more depressing to realize that someone believes that this is actually the only valid moral choice open to a writer.
How great, then, to realize that Miranda July does what Tao Lin does but better. Like Tao Lin, she knows how people actually think these days and she isn't embarrassed by that. Unlike Tao Lin, she's capable of showing that the way people actually think these days is both terrible and wonderful, depending on context, much like the way people actually think in any other days. We read seeeerious fiction because we need to be reminded that human life is worth living. Most people don't provide that service; Miranda July does.
There are problems. She's overly precious enough of the time to make me worry, and a number of the lines or scenes seem either half-assed ("I wonder if Ruth said "partner" because they are lesbians. Of course they are, and the paralyzed woman is probably running for governor, too. I cry harder. I'd totally vote for her.") or like ideas that would play better on film (like the entirety of "The Swim Team," a story about swimming lessons—in someone's kitchen! What a quirky world view!) But if someone's just basically a good writer who takes writing seriously, who's not going to rip you off and waste your time, and who's also fantastically talented, these kinds of problems don't matter. If you feel like someone is your friend, it doesn't matter if they order french fries with gravy and they start eating these twenty minutes before you get your food.
Good reviews are less fun to read than bad ones so I'll probably just finish with a list of what I liked about various stories in this book.
The Shared Patio
I thought that this was going to be a story about a quirky girl who's "different" and "artsy" and who leads a more meaningful life than her staid "normal" neighbors. It was, and then it turned into a story about how the quirky girl is so wrapped up in looking at photos of children on the neighbors' refrigerator that she lets a her neighbor potentially die in an epileptic fit. ****/**** for effectively damning my generation.
This was written for/published in McSweeney's Quarterly originally and it shows, but you have to like a story where the entire dramatic weight hinges on learning more than halfway through the narrator is forty-six.
I like how I guessed the plot twist pretty much immediately but was still surprised by the story.
Something That Needs Nothing
This was just amazing; if the rest of the stories were just reprinted Dio lyrics this book would still be worth buying on the strength of this story. I like that it recognizes cockroaches as the mortal terror they are and I like that even though the ending is completely unsatisfying I don't care because I just wanted these characters' horrible heartbreaking problems to be over, for them to be able to relax for a little while out from under my eyes.
Making Love in 2003
I thought I was going to hate this when Madeleine L'Engle showed up, but it's another highlight, and along with "The Shared Patio" is a pretty good indictment of a generational attitude.
In general, I like that Miranda July can get away with being precious; I like that her preciousness ultimately doesn't matter in the same way that J.D. Salinger's creepy middle-late-period mysticism ultimately doesn't matter. I like that she's easily able to walk the line between making people appear worse than they are and making them appear better than they are. I like that she recognizes that there's a serious point to fiction, that she's not striving for a cool ironic aesthetic but that she actually seems upset when her characters are upset, that she can actually identify the invisible true things in the world and make them seem fresh. I like that she can do this despite being some kind of goddamned multi-media artist.
Modern short story writing as it stands is a tough racket; you aren't going to make any money at it, few people read it, and it takes a strong will to continue using your time outside of paid work to write fiction for effectively no worldly reward beyond contributor's copies, a resume dent, and of course your own inscrutable joys and answers. Despite this, there is also a dearth of really, really good short story writing; the ratio is easily 1,000:1, bad to good. Of the good, most of the stories are one-note jokes extended for the length of a plot, or stories that struck the editors of whatever publication as personally relevant, or something politically striking, or something that resembles a good story so much that you're afraid not to accept it. It can be difficult to maintain hope: not that you'll never see a good story again, because of course you will. It can be difficult to maintain hope that you'll see someone point out a new direction to go in, one that you'd actually want to go in. It's rare that you see someone do right by your generation, and Miranda July does.
Posted by future on Fri, 13 Mar 2009 00:46:21 -0400 -- permanent link