Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Review: It Chooses You by Miranda July

It Chooses You by Miranda July, with photographs by Brigitte Sire.
Publisher: McSweeney's Publishing
Publication Date: November 15, 2011
Source/Format: Library book!
Page Count: 218.
Goodreads & Amazon

Miranda July, filmmaker and author, was busy at work on her second film, The Future. Her writing and work was bringing up a lot of doubts about her talents as a filmmaker, and the likelihood of the film being a success. It is then that she gets sucked into the world of the Pennysaver and delves into the objects for sale, and the people who are trying to get rid of them. Paired with photographs by Brigitte Sire, It Chooses You is told in a series of small essays and interviews that gives the reader a glimpse into lives they'd probably never stop to think about otherwise.

Tuesday was the day the PennySaver booklet was delivered. It came hidden among the coupons and other junk mail. I read it while I ate lunch, and then, because I was in no hurry to get back to not writing, I usually kept reading it straight through to the real estate ads in the back. I carefully considered each item--not as a buyer, but as a curious citizen of Los Angeles. Each listing was like a very brief newspaper article. News flash: someone in LA is selling a jacket. The jacket is leather. It is also large and black. The person thinks it is worth ten dollars. 

I am pretty familiar with Miranda July's work. I enjoyed her film, Me and You and Everyone We Know, and her novel No One Belongs Here More Than You inspired me to delve into other writing styles. I'm currently loving her e-mail subscription project WE THINK ALONE. My roommate has also given high praise to her heartbreaking film, The Future. As for It Chooses You, I was intrigued right away by the concept of the novel. I'm a nosey person by nature, and the book presented itself as a look into the lives of sellers in the PennySaver. I was dying to look at the photographs and read into their lives, and was so excited when I finally saw it in at the library. 

His conviction ignited me. I felt light and alert. Evidence of his faith in this almost-impossible challenge was everywhere: the pink blouse, the makeup littering the bathroom, the handmade dildo-esque wig stand. These were not signals of defeat. This was not someone who was getting sleepy at the end of his journey; in fact, everything he had lived through made him certain of what mattered now.

The interview format of this book, as well as all of the photographs, made it an incredibly quick read. I finished the book cover to cover in just a few short hours. July's prose introduces each new item from the PennySaver and a quick description of place, and then the interview carries along the dialogue of each encounter. Her prose also meanders into her struggles writing The Future, and where she was pulling her inspiration from. My favorite part of these interviews was the fact that July did not shy away from asking the questions most other people would be too shy to ask. She asks Michael, an elderly man in the process of transitioning to a woman, the process of his transition and how he came to the decision this late in life to do so. She asks about the financial standings, hardships, and family demons in each person she meets with, and almost always asks if they own or use a computer.

And though she knew I wasn't a reporter or anyone of consequence, she began to tell me about herelf the way Michael had, as if this interview really mattered. It occurred to me that everyone's story matters to themselves, so the more I listened, the more she wanted to talk. 

Each interviewee was gracious with their answers, sharing parts of themselves that they might not have shared with just anyone. It was fascinating to read about their lives, and how everyone, through the lens of July at least, seemed to be turned on to the idea of someone being curious about their lives. Each of her subjects were individually fascinating, though July's treatment of them was disappointing and bordered on the edge of judgmental and unflattering. Perhaps because she was using this project as a springboard for The Future, each person seemed to be molded into a quirky and strange version of themselves. July didn't seem to view them as actual humans, and even admits in the book that she would have to try to not replace each person with her own fictional version of them. 

Not that I was meeting one kind of person through the PennySaver, or that they all sold things for the same reason. Michael was poor, Pauline was lonelier than she was poor, Primila was just old-fashioned...In the process of trying to reassure the people I was calling, I would occasionally ention that I was someone established--not a student, but a published writer. Google "Miranda July," I'd suggest. 

I would have appreciated these interviews and glimpses into the lives of others more if it didn't come with the shadow of July's judgments, and they became at times so harsh that I became curious to know if her subjects would have agreed to the interview if they had known the kind of light they were being painted in. She gracelessly notes that she hopes Michael had sold his $10 leather jacket so he was $10 closer to womanhood. She describes one woman's house as a 'FEMA-like encampment,' and consistently points out their socioeconomic standing, the appearance of their house, and how old-fashioned and weird it is that almost none of them have computers. She handles each interview with a flippancy and ungratefulness that made me sad for the subjects in the book and seemed unfazed and uncaring about the stories these people were sharing with her. 

The sound and smell and the wings beating around my face began to make me feel slightly hysterical, like I might cry. I also couldn't stop smiling. I should go to Mexico, I though. Not that Beverly was Mexican, just that I'd always meant to go there. 

It wasn't until we are introduced to Joe, the final interview of the novel and eventual actor in The Future, that we see one of the sellers get treated with real respect and grace, and it actually made me cry and wish that every other seller had been treated as delicately so we could see the beauty in their lives as well. It was Joe's segment that momentarily made me forget about all of the lines of judgement and jabs at the other interviewees. It was tasteful and interesting and he was such a sweet character that I felt for him and had tears over someone I had never met. 

I thought about his sixty-two years of sweet, filthy cards and something unspooled in my chest. Maybe I had miscalculated what was left of my life. Maybe it wasn't loose change. Or, actually, the whole thing was loose change, from start to finish--many, many little moments, each holiday, each Valentine, each year unbearably repetitive and yet somehow always new. You could never buy anything with it, you could never cash it in for something more valuable or more whole. It was just all these days, held together only by the fragile memory of one person - or, if you were lucky, two. 

The photographs accompanying each encounter were also beautiful and captured each person and their object for sale well. The photos really laid each person open with beautiful portraits of them, and the objects around their home. Brigitte Sire did a lot of justice to each person, and even though their lives and July's judgments of them have now been printed in a book for thousands of people to read, Sire artfully showed just enough to give us nosey people what we would want to see while still preserving their privacy. 

It Chooses You had the potential to be really beautiful in the way that Miranda July's other work is known to be. With a killer concept that lured me in, and interviews that didn't shy away from the hard-hitting topics in each interviewees life, I wanted to love this book. Unfortunately, it was July's criticisms and flippancy with each subject that turned me off to it. 

Rating: 2 / 5

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