It’s difficult to be interested in modern American culture and not be at least nominally aware of Miranda July. The New York Times Magazine has called her a “prolific polymath.” That’s often shorthand for “dilettante,” but July is in no way trifling: Her novel was a bestseller and her stories appear in the New Yorker and the Paris Review. She is a performance artist whose work winds up in museums. She’s an indie auteur whose films—Me and You and Everyone We Know, The Future—win awards at Cannes and Sundance.
Even her name is a creation. At 16, she rechristened herself after a character in a story published in a zine—dropping the family surname Grossinger.
Raised in Berkeley, July lived in Portland, Oregon, for many years, and now makes her home in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. It would not surprise me if she ferments her own kombucha and knows how to knit a sweater from alpaca wool.
Which is to say, I have been one of those people annoyed by her Miranda Julyness. She has represented a callback to the Fugazi-loving trustafarians—fresh out of prep school and hopped-up on DIY arts ethic and self-actualization—who irked me in the 1980s.
But then I read this eponymously titled monograph. I did not expect to be wooed by July’s earnestness, to understand that what I had supposed was ironic was heartfelt all along.
What have we here? A career chronology filled with photos and ephemera related to July’s endeavors, from the 1992 play The Lifers (which she wrote and directed while still in high school) through the film Kajillionaire, which premiered this year at Sundance. An introduction by Julia Bryan-Wilson, a UC Berkeley professor who also happens to be one of July’s best friends, helps create a narrative frame.
Chapters recount various projects, using July’s recollections and observations as well as those of friends, journalists, academics, audience members, and collaborators—including Rick Moody, David Byrne, and Spike Jonze. This marriage of images and interview is familiar to anyone who has ever watched a documentary; the trick of Miranda July is how successfully it translates the technique to the page, tracking the ping-bang-whiz of her kinetic thoughts.
It’s not enough for July to broadcast outward; what she’s after is an exchange with others. Even the book’s cover image asks us to enter her work, literally—there’s an actual hole there, framed by the following words: “This is not the first hole your finger has been in; nor will it be the last” (a reference to one of July’s public art projects).
Reader, let me tell you, this is not an intellectual exercise. Prep school, yes; precocious punk chick, yes; quirky boho hipster, yes; but what else could July do but start with who she is? From there, she reaches across the divides that separate us to find the humanness.
No, maybe better said: the essential beingness, which binds all living things.
Samantha Dunn is an author and writing teacher and the editor of Coast Magazine in Orange County.
• By Miranda July
• Prestel Publishing, 224 pages, $50