No One Belongs Here More Than You:
A Study in Art, Style, and
The Meaning of Life
It is both! Can the world maintain such a contradiction? And this was even better, because as the illusion of prettiness and horribleness flipped back and forth, we flipped with it. We were uglier than her, then suddenly we were lucky not to be her, but then again at this angle she was too lovely to bear. She was both, we were both, and the world continued to spin.
— Miranda July, “Birthmark”
This passage should be pasted on the book flap of Miranda July’s short story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You, like one of those “never remove under penalty of law” mattress tags, as a warning to consumers of what’s in store for them. No One Belongs Here More Than You could just as well be July’s treatise on aesthetic theory as her first collection of short stories. It’s as if the short story has been transformed to July’s new palate of oil colors, and we, the readers, are meant to see the entire canvas all at once for full effect.
Miranda July’s stories are about life in all its horribleness and prettiness. She uses some very specific writing techniques to achieve and support her universal themes in what may at first appear to be just high humor or just very intelligent contemporary stories. Her stories could have been less could have been petty could have been simpler could have been just humorous and tragic stories of modern relationships. Which would have been enough for a debut collection. But her stories here aren’t “just” that. They’re more.
“Birthmark,” the story the opening quote is from, is about a lady that has a port-wine stain “…as high as her right eye, over to the edge of her right nostril, across her whole cheek to the ear, ending at her jawbone” (p. 175). In all other aspects, we learn, she is beautiful, almost perfect. She has the stain removed by laser. “The pain a three on a scale where a five is having your jaw reset and a two is having your foot run over by a car.” Her life changes accordingly: (pp. 171-172)
Now began the part of her life where she was just very beautiful, except for nothing. Only winners know what this feels like. Have you ever wanted something very badly and then gotten it? Then you know that winning is many, many things, but it is never the thing you thought it to be….
There was so much potential in the removal of the birthmark; any fool on the bus could play the game of guessing how perfect she would look without it. Now there was not this game to play, there was just a spent feeling. And she was no idiot, she could sense it….
It was the birthmark, which in its density had lent color even to her voice.
Time passes. Many people now in her life never saw her birthmark; her husband is one of them. She feels the loss of the birthmark, but he does not — “why should he?” July has her say. She feels her loss, perhaps even more intensely as a married woman, and the missing birthmark hangs as an issue between them: (p. 173)
It was a small thing, but it was a thing, and things have a way of either dying or growing, and it wasn’t dying. Years went by. This thing grew, like a child, microscopically, every day. And since they were a team, and all teams want to win, they continually adjusted their vision to keep its growth invisible. They wordlessly excused each other for not loving each other as much as they had planned to. There were empty rooms in the house where they had meant to put their love, and they worked together to fill those rooms with midcentury modern furniture.
And then it happened one day:
This is a well-known tip, a kitchen trick, a bang to loosen the lid. It’s not witchery or black magic; it’s simply a way to release pressure under the lid. She banged it too hard, and the jar broke. She screamed. Her husband came running when he heard the sound. There was red everywhere, and in that instant he saw blood. Hallucinatory clarity: you are certain of what you see. But in the next moment, your fear relinquishes control: it was jam…
And [then] it happened again. For a moment he thought he saw a port-wine stain on her cheek. It was fiercely red and bigger than he had ever imagined. It was bloodier than even blood, like sick blood, animal blood, the blood racist people think beats inside people of other races; blood that shouldn’t touch my own. But the next moment it was just jam, and he laughed and rubbed the kitchen towel on her cheek. Her clean cheek. Her port-wine stain.
Then her husband speaks to her: (pp. 174-175)
Can you get the trash can?
Go look in the mirror.
Go look in the mirror.
She goes into the bathroom, sees her port-wine birthmark in the mirror, and returns: (pp. 175-176)
She was looking at the stain the way one would look at oneself fifteen years after one’s own death. Oh, you again. Now it was obvious it had always been there; she had startled it back into sight. She looked into its redness and breathed in and breathed out and found herself in a kind of trance. She thought: I am in a kind of trance. She was just blowing around. It lasted about twenty-five minutes, a very, very long time to be just blowing around. Mostly, you waft for a second or two, a half-second, maybe. And then you spend the rest of your life trying to describe it, to regain the perspective. You say, It was like I was just blowing around, and you wave your arms in the air. But there were no arms like that, and you know it. She came out of the trance like a plane taking off. Instead of being inside the stain, she was now looking down on it from above. Like a lake, it it grew smaller and smaller until it was only a tiny region in a larger mass. One that this pilot favored, hovered over, but would not touch down on again. She pulled some toilet paper off the roll and blew her nose.
And then we get the same thirty-minute timeframe from her husband’s perspective: (p. 176)
He found himself kneeling. He was waiting for her on his knees. He was worried she would not let him love her with the stain. He had already decided long ago, twenty or thirty minutes ago, that the stain was fine. He had only seen it for a moment, but he was already used to it. It was good. It somehow allowed them to have more. They could have a child now, he thought. There was a loose feeling in the air. The jam was still on the floor, and that was okay. He would just kneel here and wait for her to come out and hope he would be able to tell her about the looseness in a loose way. He wanted to keep the feeling. He hoped she wasn’t removing it somehow, the stain. She should keep it, and they should have a kid. He could hear her blowing her nose; now she was opening the door. He would stay on his knees, just like this. She would see him this way and understand.
“Birthmark” is the most allegorical story in this collection. The main character is never named, referred to only as “she” and “honey.” We are in and out of time references, some that make sense, some that don’t. Our reality and sense of values are reversed; her life should be better without the port-wine stain; but in this world of reverse logic we’re told “it’s not black magic or witchery,” even at the point where the stain is “startled back” into existence or at least back into sight. There are mirrors involved — enchantment and reflection. She has an “out of body” or similar experience. The color red (jam, blood) is dominant — birth itself, passion restored. There are many references throughout to life, death, birth, and children to give a universal sense of life and reality. The viewpoint and perspective can change on a whim (she, you, my). Yet this “story” reality is grounded heavily in the everyday, in the commonplace, even: strawberry jam, kitchen, toilet paper, blowing your nose.
In more ways than one “Birthmark” is representative of all of the stories in this collection. The main character seldom wins, like they do here, but they are always faced with a reckoning, a time when their world “stands still” and their minds race and they decide or carry on with a mundane task to return themselves to their “real” world, a world of prettiness and horribleness. Her characters feel the loss of their “birthmark,” that thing that makes them most unique, usually, and long for passion. And in support of her most climactic moments, July uses similar writing techniques to emphasize her points, to represent her characters’ (and in doing so, her readers’) sense of reality.
Let’s look more closely at the writing in the last paragraph of “Birthmark,” the discovery from the husband’s perspective.
• We get a July-esque double word play: “he found himself kneeling.” Play with the punctuation: “He found himself, kneeling.”
• We get repetition, alliteration and assonance for emphasis: The word/vowel sounds of “kneeling, which rhyme with “knee,” “feeling,” and “seen” is repeated seven times in the paragraph’s 176 words, making up about 5% of the total word count: not overwhelming, subtle, but significant. The word “loose” and variants is repeated three times in hard rhymes; whenever the whole phrase is repeated in its entirety one has to look for special importance. (Is “loo” also a pun on the wife in the bathroom? Or does “loose” imply free will? Hmmm.). Of course we also have all of those “its,” he’s” and “she’s” to add on.
• There’s one or more negative references, i.e., something that is thought about but not being done: “He was worried she would not let him love her with the stain.” “He hoped she wasn’t removing it somehow, the stain.”
• There is often a play on time, and/or disorientation of time: “He had already decided long ago, twenty or thirty minutes ago, that the stain was fine. He had only seen it for a moment, but he was already used to it.” Sometimes time will stand still.
• There is a pickup (indirect repetition) of a word used earlier for thematic clue: child, stain, kid.
• The sentences will be varied in length to create more rhythm — to give the writing a musical, aesthetic quality.
• There is a future projection, which adds to the time disorientation: “She would see him like this…”
• There is often a return to the mundane, the normal, to signal that the “moment of choice” is over: “He could hear her blowing her nose, she was opening the door.” In this case, we also have a wondrous synchronization of time to link the two sequences, the two “perspectives,” the husband and the wife, “post” stain, passion revived.
Note also these additional general points:
• None of July’s dialogue has quote marks. Quotes are often set aside in small “chunks” like sidebars on a news magazine article (see dialogue in “Mon Plasir,” the “happy” brochure clips in “The Shared Patio,” and others).
• July will often have her characters pose questions to themselves and then answer them.
What struck me as almost uncanny and positively formulaic was the way July repeated and re-used these techniques in many of her stories in No One Belongs Here More Than You. The plots may be different, but the themes are similar. The words may be different, but the structure and style (and “importance formula” for the critical scene) are certainly similar. The paragraphs of revelation, like the stories themselves, are rounded and complete, and similar in their very presentation and structure to one another, regardless of which story they are in.
To prove this claim, let’s take a closer look at “Swim Team,” another July story, and see if any of our writing criteria for July’s “critical moment” passages can be found. The story starts as a tale about a couple in trouble, with the girlfriend lamenting to her boyfriend: (p. 13)
This is the story I wouldn’t tell you when I was your girlfriend. You kept asking and asking, and your guesses were so lurid and specific. Was I a kept woman? Was Belvedere like Nevada, where prostitution is legal? Was I naked for the entire year? The reality began to seem barren. And in time I realized that if the truth felt empty, then I probably would not be your girlfriend much longer.
The moment of truth comes when the main character finds her calling: (pp. 14-15)
This story won’t be very long, because the amazing thing about that year is that almost nothing happened. The citizens of Belvedere thought my name was Maria. I never said it was Maria, but somehow this got started, and I was overwhelmed by the task of telling all three people my real name. These three people were named Elizabeth, Kelda, and Jack Jack. I don’t know why Jack twice, and I am not completely sure about the name Kelda, but that’s what it sounded like, and that’s the sound I made when I called her name. I knew these people because I gave them swimming lessons. This is the real meat of my story, because of course there are no bodies of water near Belvedere and no pools. They were talking about this in the store one day, and Jack Jack, who must be dead by now because he was really old, said it didn’t matter anyways because he and Kelda couldn’t swim, so they’d be liable to drown themselves. Elizabeth was Kelda’s cousin, I think. And Kelda was Jack Jack’s wife. They were all in their eighties, at least. Elizabeth said that she had swum many times one summer as a girl while visiting a cousin (obviously not cousin Kelda). The only reason I joined the conversation was that Elizabeth claimed you had to breathe under water to swim.
That’s not true, I yelled. These were the first words I’d spoken out loud in weeks. My heart was pounding like I was asking someone out on a date. You just hold your breath.
Significantly her first spoken words in the story are “That’s not true.” She becomes the coach, and through a generous dose of “suspension of disbelief” by all in this story about truth and identity and reality, she teaches her three protégés how to awim, and in doing so finds herself. The story ends with the same girl lamenting again about the end of her relationship with her boyfriend: (p. 18)
I know it’s hard for you to imagine me as someone called “Coach.” I had a very different identity in Belvedere, that’s why it is so difficult to talk about it with you. I never had a boyfriend there; I didn’t make art, I wasn’t artistic at all. I was kind of a jock. I was totally a jock — I was the coach of a swim team. If I had thought this would be at all interesting to you I would have told you earlier, and perhaps we would still be going out. It’s been three hours since I ran into you at the bookstore with the woman in the white coat. What a fabulous white coat. You are obviously completely happy and fulfilled already, even though we only broke up two weeks ago. I wasn’t even totally sure we broke up until I saw you with her. You seem incredibly faraway to me, like someone on the other side of a lake. A dot so small that it isn’t male or female or young or old; it is just smiling. Who I miss now, tonight? Is Elizabeth, Kelda, and Jack Jack. They are dead; of this I can be sure. What a tremendously sad feeling. I must be the saddest swim coach in all of history.
Certainly the alliteration, assonance and repletion identified above in “Birthmark” are here. The varying rhythm of the sentences is present. Time references are frequent. The negative statements are there. The questions are there. The word play is there: “You seem incredibly faraway to me…,” “I must be the saddest swim coach in all of history” (morose as well as “the worst”). This story is about truth and identity and believing; threads between the opening and closing paragraphs, as well as several within, are prevalent. Heck, even the lake and dot are here?!?!
These patterns and methods repeat themselves numerous times in July’s story collection; see the other stories in this collection for additional examples, check off the attributes used. I could go through many of the stories here with the same results — but that would be a(nother) critical thesis for the program. Does July’s formula (if that’s what it is) work? I think so. Can you learn from it? Yes. Can you emulate it? Yes. Should you emulate it? Assuming I could, I wouldn’t, not completely — it is July’s trademark, she earned it, let her have it. After all:
We were uglier than her, then suddenly we were lucky not to be her, but then again at this angle she was too lovely to bear. She was both, we were both, and the world continued to spin.
— Miranda July, “Birthmark”
Something else I discovered. I came to Miranda July through the Ray Carver website (www.carvezine.com, editor recommendations). No One Belongs Here More Than You was one of my airplane books on my way to residency. I read “Swim Team” the day David Edenbach read at VCFA. I also was working on a short story that was doggedly trying to be positive and uplifting, and I told myself, “Gee —- You don’t know how to end this thing, do you?” I was therefore familiar with both the story and David’s dilemma when he mentioned in his lecture the next day his/the world’s need for “happy, joyful, celebratory” short stories. (July’s “Swim Team,” BTW, is on his short list.) Here’s a connection and statement of the obvious that was new to me: July uses the same detailed writing formula and techniques regardless of whether a story is optimistic or tragic. There is no significant difference in style or technique. In short, there’s nothing new to be done to change your ways.
So I think I need to suck it up and just do it.
Because no one belongs here more than I do.
July, Miranda. No One Belongs Here More Than You. Stories by Miranda July. New York: Scribner, 2007.
More Crucial Moments: Miranda July
Their apartment was very quiet. I tiptoed across the kitchen and pressed my face against the freezer, breathing in the complex smells of their life. They had pictures of children on their refrigerator. They had friends, and these friends have given birth to more friends. I had never seen anything as intimate as the pictures of these children. I wanted to reach up and grab the plastic bag from the top of the refrigerator, but I also wanted to look at each child. One was named Trevor, and he was having a birthday party this Saturday. Please come! The invitation said. We’ll have a whale of a time! and there was a picture of a whale. It was a real whale, a photograph of a real whale. I looked into its tiny wise eyes and wondered where that eye was now. Was it alive and swimming, or had it died long ago, or was it dying now, right this second? When a whale dies, it falls down through the ocean slowly, over the course of a day. All the other fish see it fall, like a giant statue, like a building, but slowly, slowly. I focused my attention on the eye. I tried to reach down inside of it, toward the real whale, the dying whale, and I whispered, It’s not your fault. — Miranda July, “The Shared Patio,” No One Belongs Here More Than You (pp. 9-10)
We turned away from each other and set about tightening the tiny ropes of our misery. I ran a bath. Just before I stepped in the tub, I heard the front door close and froze mid-step; she was gone. Sometimes she did this. In the moments when other couples would fight or come together, she left me. With one foot in the bath, I stood waiting for her to return. I waited an unreasonably long time, long enough to realize she wouldn’t be back tonight. But what if I waited it out, what if I stood here naked until she returned? And then, just as she walked in the front door, I could finish the gesture, squatting in the then-cold water. I had done strange things like this before. I had hidden under cars for hours, waiting to be found; I had written the same word seven thousand times attempting to alchemize time. I studied my position in the bathtub. The foot in the water was already wrinkly. How would I feel when night fell? And when she came home, how long would it take her to look in the bathroom? Would she understand that time had stopped while she was gone? And even if she did realize that I had done this impossible feat for her, what then? She was never thankful or sympathetic. I washed quickly, with exaggerated motions that warded off paralysis. — Miranda July, “Something That Needs Nothing,” No One Belongs Here More Than You (p. 68)
After she left, I stood in the middle of the living room and decided it was okay to stand there for as long as I wanted. I thought I would eventually get bored, but I did not get bored, it only got worse. I was still holding the dust cloth, and I knew that if I could let it fall, I would be able to move again. But my hand was made to hold this dirty cloth forever. I had been his secretary for three years, and each of these years was made of thousands of moments, all of them unbearable if not for her. This seemed obvious now, that we, or at least I, had labored in her name. As mothers work to feed their children and husbands work for wives. I felt the foundation begin to shake, and in my head I said, Run. But I couldn’t run, not from this place that had taken me three years to build. I held the cloth and let everything fall on top of me. My knees buckled, I went down to the floor. I cried in English. I cried in French, I cried in all the languages, because tears are the same all around the world. Esperanto. — Miranda July, “Ten True Things,” No One Belongs Here More Than You (p. 141)