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Wait, Is Miranda July’s Book Fiction or Non-Fiction?

There’s a moment in Me and You and Everyone We Know, Miranda July’s hilarious and discomfiting first film, in which the director of a contemporary art museum and her assistant are fawning over a new show. “It really is amazing. It just looks so real,” the director kvells over what she believes is a sculpture of a discarded hamburger wrapper. “Oh, that wrapper is real,” says the artist, a young man with blond Fabio-style hair. “I always throw in a few real things…They kind of cast a glow over the plaster objects.” As she ponders this statement, the director spots a coffee mug featuring a picture of a cat and the slogan “You’ve Got Cat-titude.” “This is mine,” she accuses him, picking it up. “You got it from the staff kitchen.” “No,” the artist retorts, “I made that.”

The scene is funny primarily because it is absurd: what artist would spend his time reproducing a cheap mug? Besides, the museum director has already been established as a villain, and it’s fun to see her get shown up. But there’s an element of self-parody here too, because July—a director, actor, and fiction writer who got her start as a performance artist—does something similar with her own work. Crowdsourcing is one of her specialties: for an early endeavor, the “Missing Movie Report,” she went up to random women and asked them, “If you could make a movie, what would it be about?” (July has explained that, as an experimental film-maker, she noticed the absence of female directorial models and wanted to make herself aware of all the “unmade movies” that women might have created.) More recently, she generated a website and a coffee-table book out of the project Learning to Love You More, in which she posted various tasks—“make an encouraging banner,” “grow a garden in an unexpected spot”—for people to carry out and submit or report on. In a moment of life weirdly imitating art, the website, now comprising seven years’ worth of submissions, was acquired last year by the San Francisco Museum of Art, which will host the project in perpetuity.

It Chooses You, July’s newest book, also raises the is-it-real-or-is-it-art question. She writes that in 2009 she fell into a rut while working on the screenplay for her film The Future, which was released in theaters last summer and is now out on DVD. (Stanley Kauffmann reviewed it here.) The movie chronicles 30 days in the lives of Sophie and Jason, who decide to enjoy their last final burst of freedom before responsibility (in the form of a terminally ill cat they are about to adopt) hits. “We’ll be forty in five years,” Sophie says to Jason. “Forty is basically fifty. After fifty the rest is just … loose change,” he responds. “Loose change?” she repeats. “Like, not quite enough to get everything you really want,” he answers.

Sophie, who decides to create a new dance each day, is overwhelmed by the possibilities, procrastinates, and ultimately winds up abandoning her life. Jason simply lets himself be blown by the wind. July writes in It Chooses You that she knew where he would end up—affirming his devotion to life—but not how he would get there. On a whim, she picks up the PennySaver, a weekly newsletter that runs free classified ads for people selling small items. This is real life, she decides, and resolves to go around interviewing the sellers until she figures out what to do with her film. “I wanted to know more things about what [these people] thought, how they were getting through the days, what they hoped, what they feared—but none of that information was listed,” she writes. “What was listed was the person’s phone number.”

All the people who are already annoyed by July’s whimsy won’t find anything in this sweetly silly project to change their minds. “To her detractors (‘haters’ doesn’t seem like too strong a word) July has come to personify everything infuriating about the Etsy-shopping, Wes Anderson-quoting, McSweeney’s-reading, coastal-living category of upscale urban bohemia,” Katrina Onstad wrote in a New York Times Magazine profile of July last summer. To start, there’s simply the fact that she has the freedom to commit to the undertaking. Though July laments her shaky financial situation—she doesn’t have a backer for her new film, and “suddenly all the companies that had been so excited to meet me a year ago were not financing anything that didn’t star Natalie Portman”—there is no question of her immense privilege in comparison with most of the people she encounters, and she does not always seem aware of it.

July notes with interest that few of the PennySaver sellers have computers—if they did, obviously, they wouldn’t be selling their possessions in a circular!—and decides to use her interactions with them as a way of imagining herself back into the pre-Internet world. But clearly it’s poverty that restricts these people’s opportunities, not their own choice to live in “a place where computers didn’t really matter.” (July pays her sellers $50 for each interview, and some comment on how much they need the cash.) What’s grosser is that to celebrate the launch of It Chooses You, July re-enacted the PennySaver process by buying items on Craigslist and reselling them (packaged together with an interview with the original seller) in a hip SoHo shop. Other people’s junk, transformed into art because Miranda July came into contact with it. Apparently, it all sold out in less than an hour.

If the whole project is essentially voyeuristic, though, July’s generous, sincere interest in the human condition makes up for it somewhat. She laments that the modern city, especially L.A., is designed to preclude random encounters: “If someone isn’t in my house or in my car we’ll never be together, not even for a moment.” Her travels bring her into contact with, among others, a male-to-female transsexual (“a man in his late sixties, burly, broad-shouldered, a bulbous nose, a magenta blouse, boobs, pink lipstick”), a high school student selling bullfrog tadpoles, and a Greek immigrant who bought someone else’s family photo albums in a garage sale ten years ago and couldn’t bear to get rid of them until now. “All I ever really want to know is how other people are making it through life—where do they put their body, hour by hour, and how do they cope inside of it,” she says at one point. 

It takes some time before July’s compulsive interviewing brings her closer to her screenplay. Then she meets Joe and his wife Carolyn, married for sixty-two years, and the story falls into place. She is inspired by their devotion—not just to each other but to the act, the process, of their love. “Maybe I had miscalculated what was left of my life,” she writes. “Maybe it wasn’t loose change. Or, actually, the whole thing was loose change, from start to finish—many, many little moments…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 this one person—or, if you were lucky, two. And because of this, this lack of inherent meaning or value, it was stunning. Like the most intricate, radical piece of art, the kind of art I was always trying to make. It dared to mean nothing and so demanded everything of you.”

The trouble is that July expects her subjects’ stories to do all the work for her. “I couldn’t just conjure a fiction—the answers to my questions about Jason had to be true, wrought from life, like all the other parts of the story,” she writes. As a result, The Future, which confusingly straddles realism and surrealism, does not entirely make sense without It Chooses You as a companion volume. It took me three viewings by DVD just to get the plot straight. The elements of the film that have most puzzled viewers—the talking cat who functions as a kind of conscience for the film, the elderly man to whom Jason feels mysteriously connected—are impossible to fully grasp without the book as a guide.

These facets take a long time to fall into place, but when they do, the movie is a gorgeous kaleidoscope. The same cannot be said about this meandering and flabby book, guided by the caprice of July’s project rather than by an overarching artistic vision. Unless—and now this would be interesting—it’s all an invention: like the sculptures by the artist in Me and You and Everyone We Know, the book itself might be fiction, an artificial representation of a real chronicle. But a sculpture is art; a coffee mug isn’t. And it shouldn’t be too hard to tell them apart.

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter: @ruth_franklin.