But then the film veered off. A talking cat with a bandaged paw, a yellow shirt that follows July on its own accord from place to place, a child burying herself up to the neck in a self-dug hole in her father’s back yard, and an unforgettable scene where July cocoons herself in the yellow shirt and dances alone in her lover’s bedroom. This is nothing like real life! I muttered.
These vacillations between stark, unapologetic realness and head-scratching oddities encapsulate the entire body of July’s creative work. But how much of a difference was there between the creator and the created? How much was affectation, how much was true? Such questions lingered in my mind as I took my seat in the Vaughn Center at the University of Tampa to catch Miranda July’s reading for the MFA program’s Lectores series mid June.
Jeff Parker, the program’s director, introduced July as “thoughtful, inventive and fearless,” and explained that one of the reasons the program had been trying to get her for a reading since its inception was because she, having dropped out of college, was self-taught. Didn't this fact undercut the program's efficacy? If you can do what July did on her own, why pay to get an MFA? But I let it slide. Most of us could never be a July, anyway.
As she ambled up to the podium, July looked inconspicuous, lanky and awkward, like someone you’d bump into at the grocery store, and not like an award-winning filmmaker and author. Her first reading was “The Swim Team” from her collection of short stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You. The story centers around a narrator offering swimming lessons to three elderly people in her small town. Sounds innocuous enough, right? But the swimming lessons are held in the narrator's living room, with bowls of salt water to practice breathing in and practice laps around the apartment.
“I can't swim,” July admitted after the story's conclusion. She briefly had taken lessons as a child, with the dreams of joining the Olympic team, but then, she said, “I forgot how to swim.”
Her next reading came from her most current book, It Chooses You, which chronicles July's adventure of reading her local PennySaver and interviewing the people placing ads within it. She read her interview with Ron, a man on house-arrest who was selling a 67-piece art set for $65. The idea of going around and meeting the people who sell their unwanted junk appears again in The Future. Incidentally, the character Joe — the man who sells Jason (Hamish Linklater) the hair dryer — figures prominently, and poignantly, in the book.
July finished with a never-before-read except from a work-in-progress, a novel that started as something to occupy the author during her pregnancy. The narrator, a middle-aged woman, recounted the awkward break-up with her older, wealthier beau over dinner. He said he had met the love of his life, a 16-year-old, and he wanted the narrator's blessing.
Her deadpan delivery of all three tales both highlighted and blurred the sharp, strange curves each took. How much was true? I had asked myself before the reading. And afterward, I still wasn't sure if I could separate artifice from actuality. Miranda made me believe they were one and the same.