Weird but Not Wonderful

Lionel Shriver reviews Miranda July’s It Chooses You.

Director, actress and author Miranda July.

Director, actress and author Miranda July

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for MOCA.

If It Chooses You hadn’t been written by the trendy filmmaker Miranda July, would it have been published? The short answer is no.

Interweaving memoir with cameos of heartbreaking strangers, the text uses large print, wide margins and lots of colour photos, so if your New Year’s resolution is “read more books,” this one’s an effortless route to inflating January’s count. Fans of the author’s two films, Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) and The Future (2011), might enjoy this peek behind the curtain, since It Chooses You functions as a tie-in.

Stymied while writing the script for The Future, July seeks out sellers in a weekly freebie called The PennySaver, an old-style booklet of classified ads that appeals to computer illiterates. Her project functions as part inspiration, part procrastination, and turns up a collection of touching misfits, whose dialogue she transcribes in edited Q&As. A man in the process of becoming a woman is selling a leather jacket. An older woman has run an advert for a suitcase, to help make room for her grandson, who delivers mannequins for a living. A couple is flogging a collection of Care Bears, and so on.

July becomes determined to include her discoveries in her cast but the first filmed subject—I am tempted to say “victim”—becomes stiff and self-conscious before the camera. A second attempt bears cinematic fruit and viewers of The Future will recognise Joe: the elderly man who sells the co-protagonist Jason a hairdryer, shows off his collection of homemade cards for his wife and reads aloud their ungainly soft-porn limericks. In the process of filming, Joe is diagnosed with cancer and given two weeks to live. Against the odds, he survives the shoot, but doesn’t make it through production.

I’m not so po-faced as to object to July using and to a degree ridiculing her PennySaver sellers. Writers “use” people routinely and we are all each others’ material. Besides, every subject was a willing participant. But the presentation of characters-as-found-art is superficial. Oddball facts stand in for revelation. While July does not appear to aim for mockery and claims to find the eccentrics moving, these encounters are too telescoped to say much beyond “aren’t people weird”. Tellingly, July expresses exasperation that the sellers were “so lifelike and realistic” that her script “seemed totally boring in comparison”. At the risk of stating the obvious, her interviewees are “lifelike and realistic” because they are alive and real, which doesn’t always seem obvious to the author.

I enjoyed The Future. Like its predecessor, the film relies on tone—a dislocated, wondrous bleakness, a here-we-all-are-so-what-do-we-do? marvelling at the existential strangeness of it all. Never quite connecting, the characters are not in any classic sense likeable. It’s difficult to say what The Future is about, beyond some vague sense that everyone is lost and alone and confused—which jibes with July’s aspiration to make “radical” art that “dared to mean nothing and so demanded everything of you”. Perhaps that doesn’t sound appealing, but the film’s tone is mesmerising—lilting, dazed and bemused. The script is full of absurdist non sequiturs and droll, deliberately half-baked magical realism. It walks an elusive line between sincerity and parody, between innocence and knowingness.

Dismayingly, I liked The Future less after reading this book. That idiosyncratic auditory voice falls leadenly flat on the page: “As I listened to the long tones of Primila’s musical doorbell, I considered reconsidering everything—my sexuality, my profession, my friends; they were all up in the air for as long as the chimes pealed. Was this what church sounded like? What if I became born-again right now? I crossed my arms to keep this from happening and reminded myself to be attentive to mysterious advice and coded messages.”

Then again, a sentence like this—“I didn’t know if she was older or younger than me, or maybe she was a new age, one that didn’t involve numbers”—would surely be a clunker even read mellifluously in voice-over.

Her film fans could readily imagine July delivering certain lines to fine effect: “it’s like déjà vu, but instead of the sensation that this has happened before, I’m suffused with the awareness that this is happening for the first time, that all the other times were in my head”; “I feel slightly hysterical, like I might cry. I also couldn’t stop smiling. I should go to Mexico, I thought. Not that Beverly was Mexican, just that I’d always meant to go there.” But print is a stark medium. In black and white, the non sequitur comes across as flippant. Daring to be meaningless no longer seems “radical”, since saying absolutely nothing in prose is all too easy. It Chooses You exposes the guide wires and—disappointingly—seems to reveal July’s distinctive voice as a cheap trick.

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.