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Miranda July: It Chooses You

Miranda July’s writer’s block leads to obsession

Photo: , License: N/A

Photo: Deborah Woo, License: N/A

Deborah Woo

It Chooses You

Miranda July

McSweeney’s, paperback

The aimless nature of life is never so clear as when you are battling writer’s block. The threads that once held everything together just snap, causing the world to drift into messy, mundane chaos. Will you ever be able to tie those ends back together again? Will order ever be restored? Shit, does it even matter? In It Chooses You , filmmaker, writer, and performance artist Miranda July struggles with just that sort of aimlessness as she embarks on a journey with a mission even she can’t name.

While writing the script for her 2011 film The Future, July hit a wall. It would be her sophomore effort, after a successful first feature, and the pressure mounted. Suddenly, the ideas stopped flowing; her characters simply couldn’t move forward. At the same time, the filmmaker’s own life had reached a strange juncture. She had just gotten married and was still determining just what exactly a lifelong partnership meant and how a child might factor into it. The plan was to have a baby after completing the film, but her writer’s block pushed that goal further and further into the distance.

So July indulged in what every artist imbibes when the going gets tough: a distraction. Picking up the PennySaver, she became obsessed with the mysterious characters it held, and she grew determined to learn their ways. They were all so anonymous, so veiled compared to the click-and-instantly e-mail culture of Craigslist. She wanted to track them down, interrupt their lives for a minute, and have them explain themselves. Assembling a ragtag team, composed of photographer Brigitte Sire (July: “Her photographic equipment legitimized this outing in my mind; maybe I was a journalist or a detective—who knew?”) and her assistant, Alfred, she found willing participants to play roles in her ever-growing experiment, interviewing them about their lives and the items they were selling via the antiquated publication.

A mixture of interview transcripts and the author’s own musings, It Chooses You moves much like July’s cinematic work. Just when you think it’s all about to unravel, there’s a connection, a spark that keeps the action (and the audience) tethered to some sort of narrative. For a moment, everything matches up, holds fast to everything else, and then it all loosens up again. Fortunately, July as a narrator helps make the journey a pleasurable one. Her voice is so honest and at times so funny that trekking into the homes of strangers, with no purpose in sight, becomes an adventure in and of itself. Having no prior experience with such a project, she initially tries to come off to her subjects as accepting and in control:

“Miranda: Can I look at your movie collection?”
Michael: Oh, that’s all pornography.
I nodded and smiled warmly to indicate how okay I was with pornography.”

For the most part, the people she finds are harmless, lonely, and sweetly strange, like Domingo, who compulsively collects magazine cutouts of pretty girls and babies because he desperately wants to start a family. But then there are the slightly more shocking characters that drop into the book just as abruptly as July enters their lives. Take Beverly, the animal breeder who won’t show her face to the camera due to an accident with a shovel. And then there’s Ron, whose revelations over the course of the interview leave July, Sire, and Alfred running for the exit.

At times, you might find yourself veering toward frustration, wondering just where all of this will lead. Well into the book, her screenplay has yet to take shape, and even July wonders just why she’s heading off on these seemingly fruitless adventures. It’s not until she meets Joe, the subject of her final interview, that everything starts to come into focus. And yet, the revelations and connections that spring forth at the end of the book somehow take root in every excursion that preceded it. The tearjerking yet comedic moments at the book’s conclusion couldn’t have existed had July not set out on this journey in the first place. The woman selling photo albums from a couple she never knew makes more sense. The mannequin delivery man who owns a dummy version of his celebrity crush becomes entwined with every fiber of the entire story. The broken threads of reality, torn asunder by July’s lack of inspiration, are reunited, simply because she defied the laws governing her life and stepped out to make her own connections. Fortunately for the reader, It Chooses You is guided by a writer with the skill to be honest about her lack of direction and still remain engaging enough to keep you hooked until the story’s touching and life-affirming finale.

It Chooses You is available in paperback Aug. 15

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