Tak­ing a jour­ney out­side web of Youtube videos

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - So­phie Quick

MI­RANDA July takes navel gaz­ing to ex­haus­tive ex­tremes in her new work of non­fic­tion, It Chooses You. But some navels merit closer ex­am­i­na­tion than oth­ers and July’s might be one of them. The sub­ject of this book is its au­thor’s strug­gle to fin­ish a screen­play — not ex­actly a topic cry­ing out for the public’s ur­gent and earnest at­ten­tion — but July is so gen­uinely odd and her logic so de­light­fully lat­eral, that fol­low­ing her creative pro­cesses is sur­pris­ingly en­gross­ing.

July is a writer, film­maker and per­form- ance artist and a po­lar­is­ing fig­ure in her na­tive US. Best known for writ­ing, di­rect­ing and star­ring in the 2005 in­de­pen­dent film hit Me and You and Ev­ery­one We Know, July also won the Frank O’con­nor Short Story Award in 2007 for No One Be­longs Here More Than You. De­trac­tors find July’s work twee and in­dul­gent; fans find it funny and in­ven­tive. It Chooses You is all of those things and en­tirely con­sis­tent with July’s idio­syn­cratic ou­vre.

The open­ing chap­ter finds July in the sum­mer of 2009, close to com­plet­ing the screen­play for her sec­ond fea­ture film, The Fu­ture, but sud­denly mired in the end­less dis­trac­tions of the in­ter­net. As she squan­ders her days watch­ing Youtube videos and Googling her own name, July, 35, feels ‘‘ jealous of older writ­ers who had got­ten more of a toe­hold on their dis­ci­pline be­fore the web came’’.

Res­cue comes in the un­likely form of the Pen­nysaver, a junk mail book­let of clas­si­fied ads de­liv­ered free weekly to ev­ery house­hold in Los An­ge­les. Drawn to the as­sort­ment of ob­jects on sale and the sto­ries and strangers be­hind them, July em­barks on a quest to visit and in­ter­view any Pen­nysaver ad­ver­tiser who will agree to talk to her— not only about the item for sale but also about their life story. Ex­actly how July be­lieves this mis­sion will help her com­plete her screen­play is not clear; it’s an in­tu­itive, su­per­sti­tious quest.

Sec­tions of the book read like a travel- ogue, with July ven­tur­ing to parts of the city she’d never oth­er­wise visit and meet­ing 13 peo­ple she’d never oth­er­wise meet. She meets strangers and ex­am­ines their tad­poles, browses their pornog­ra­phy col­lec­tions and in­spects their hairdry­ers. Some of the in­ter­vie­wees have ex­tra­or­di­nary and af­fect­ing sto­ries to tell and July helps them along with dis­arm­ing hu­mour and sen­si­tiv­ity.

July is not, how­ever, just trav­el­ling around Los An­ge­les, she’s also trav­el­ling out­side the in­ter­net.

The Pen­nysaver is an en­dan­gered relic of the pre-in­ter­net world and July’s quest to in­ter­view the peo­ple who still use it, seems only partly for pos­ter­ity. It’s also a re­flec­tion of her grow­ing anx­i­eties about the ex­tent to which the on­line world is erod­ing her per­spec­tive as well as her time.

‘‘ Peo­ple nearby who had no web pres­ence were be­com­ing al­most car­toon­like,’’ she writes, ‘‘ as if they were miss­ing a di­men­sion.’’ At the same time, July is wrestling with an age-old creative prob­lem: how to cre­ate au­then­tic fic­tional char­ac­ters when the com­plex­ity of real hu­man be­ings makes them stub­bornly re­sis­tant to rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

July be­lieves if she can re­sist the im­pulse

Mi­randa July

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