Lonely people suit short stories. Uneventful lives punctuated with occasional incident are easily delineated, revealing poignancy and even humour. In the hands of virtuosos such as Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore, the fortunes of the marginal or merely ordinary make for exhilarating reading which confirms that size does not always matter. With lesser talents, the minutiae of small worlds can be reduced to cultivated curiosities bereft of drama, comedy or insight. I feared this fate for the American artist Miranda July, whose film Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) struck me as twee and sporadically artful. This was misplaced worry. July’s debut collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You, has renewed my passion for short stories.
The title refers to no particular story, and instead stakes a general claim for those among us who feel we belong nowhere. Most of the pieces have been published before, some of them in the New Yorker and the Paris Review. They hang together beautifully here, even the small oddball ‘The Moves’, in which a father’s legacy for his daughter is his erotic repertoire. July fancies discomforting scenarios; each story makes the implausible or unlikely utterly convincing. An old man pops ecstasy. A young woman gives swimming lessons on her lounge-room floor. A child is accidentally raised by her father’s best friend; her parents are too self-absorbed to notice.
July’s writing is disarming, but never gratuitous. It is often sex (with other people or alone) that pushes her protagonists towards emotional truths, fleeting fulfilment or eternal frustration. The most startling and memorable passages - and each story has at least one - focus on the vagaries of human sexuality. The longest piece, ‘Something That Needs Nothing’, is the strongest, packing a lifetime of passion, longing and sordid experience into one teenager’s journey. Abandoned by her best friend and sometime lover, the unnamed heroine pays the rent by taking off her clothes. What she learns is that the “world is not safer than I thought; on the contrary it was so dangerous that my practically naked self fit right in”.
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