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Wonder Woman

Miranda July escapes the confines of twee
A woman in a yellow T-shirt in a contorted pose.

All Fours: A Novel by Miranda July. Riverhead Books, 336 pages. 2024.

The mid to late aughts was a time of catastrophically delusional optimism. You didn’t need to be rich to buy a house; there were loans. You didn’t need to live in an expensive metropole to meet new people; online spaces were opening up. And you didn’t need to let feelings of powerlessness get the best of you; talk of change was in the air.

The stories in Miranda July’s debut collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You, are emblematic of those years. On the whole, it eludes easy categorizations as either ironic or sincere; it sticks its tongue out at certain American values, at performances of goodness and no-nonsense attitudes toward work, but it’s almost desperately serious about its subversions. Its narrators have hope, however vague, and want change, however undefined. Critically, the collection struck a chord, winning the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.

Ask anyone who’s read or seen July’s work to describe it, and twee will all but certainly come up. Twee isn’t always a pejorative, but it’s not a compliment either. To be twee is to be wide-eyed and naive, sometimes willfully. To insist on the truth of one’s own inner logic as a way of protecting one’s purity. To wear Peter Pan collars.

July has called the charge sexist, a way to characterize her work as diminutive, and to write off what’s diminutive as insignificant. But considering the work of other alleged offenders—Dave Eggers, Wes Anderson—complicates the notion that twee is merely a sweet and solipsistic affect. At their best, twee writers’ interest in cuteness, in wonder, and in a child’s point of view allows them to make art about the world not only as it is but as it might be. At their worst, they’re just cloying: talking cats and teenagers learning to love their thumb-sucking habit.

Some twee writers have evolved by widening their range without shedding their silliness.

No One Belongs Here More Than You, July’s influential entree into the canon of twee, spans the range. The title itself reads like a hopeful affirmation. It’s wordy enough to feel satirical, a light sendup of wellness speak, but many of its stories take on a can-do tone shorn of irony or friction. The strongest exist in a fantasy world more complicated than the real one. In others, the act of escape is an end in itself, a narrative trick that doesn’t take us anyplace new, and winds up sounding a lot like its realistic counterpart: alienated and full of platitudes. In “How to Tell Stories to Children,” a woman visits her friend, a new parent, and his wife, with whom he’s engaged in an ongoing fight about their respective affairs. Holding their baby in another room while they argue, the narrator reaches for soothing thoughts: “the round ball of the sun, the food cycle, and time itself, which seemed miraculous and poignant.” In “Majesty,” a narrator working at a startup called QuakeKare, with “a mandate to teach preparedness and support quake victims around the world,” fantasizes about Prince William. In “The Swim Team,” a woman living in a town with no access to oceans or lakes or even outdoor pools provides swimming lessons in her carpeted living room, blowing bubbles in bowls of salted water and pantomiming the strokes, triumphing over the banality of summer like a picture-book rogue.

July uses fantasy to construct quaint safehouses from which the rest of the world appears absurd. It’s a clever inversion, but one wonders what might happen if her characters’ lives went on much longer, if they were forced by circumstance or curiosity to leave their hiding spots, their dens and their bedrooms, if only to find other hiding spots: someone else’s den or someone else’s bedroom. What might it look like for a writer like July to sustain her sense of wonder over time? And what might it look like for her to lose it altogether? In her latest novel, All Fours, July confronts these questions head-on, moving beyond the tropes of twee and its predecessors.

Twee’s parents might be the so-called hysterical realists, among them David Foster Wallace and Zadie Smith: often funny social critics who wrote expansive stories that zip across the Western world’s traversable surfaces. Raised on such lofty playfulness, twee rebelled not by renouncing playfulness but by renouncing loftiness. At its peak, the affect felt appropriate to its time, which culminated in a presidential campaign run on hope and change that won both an election and several advertising awards.

Characters in twee stories often struggle when conflict arises—that is, when interacting with others, with the world. They take to talking stiltedly; often, at a loss for words, they slap, howl, wiggle, bite, dance, or run away. It’s usually funny, the extent they’re willing to go to avoid encountering someone whose illusions might differ from theirs, but that starts to curdle over the span of a novel, or a life.

In July’s debut novel, The First Bad Man (2015), a woman working at a self-defense start-up hosts a houseguest whose feet reek. Things are tense between them, and these tensions escalate into at-home wrestling matches. It’s a surprising conceit—one I praised at the time—and a real source of conflict, but it tires out soon after it’s introduced. They duke it out; they duke it out again. The matches read like stand-ins for something deeper, but what? Has language finally made its inexorable plunge into absurdity, leaving its speakers with nothing honest but their fists? And if so, why write about that in a novel? And in July’s most recent film, Kajillionaire (2020), a family of professional if inept scammers take to ducking, squatting, and literally bending over backward when they walk past their landlord’s place to avoid paying rent, which is really only funny the first time.

Some twee writers have evolved by widening their range without shedding their silliness. Wes Anderson’s childlike gaze, for example, has lately fixated on the past. In Asteroid City, a wondrous extraterrestrial event is immediately incorporated into a military project; in The French Dispatch, long-form magazine journalism dies out, and fringe character studies along with it. Both movies limn branching systems of power inhospitable to anyone paddling against the current, and both cast young people as playful objectors to the status quo.

In All Fours, July isn’t explicitly interested in historical or geopolitical stakes; instead, she reckons with twee’s problem of arrested narrative and emotional development by writing directly about getting older. Several of her characters are middle-aged women whose bodies and families and desires are in flux. Faced with these changes, they break into dance and send their friends nudes; it wouldn’t be a July plot otherwise. But they also find quiet places where they can talk, confess, indulge, vent, and disagree.

The story centers on an unnamed woman and self-described workaholic whose “work was full of unlikely couplings, unauthorized sex, surrealism, and a shit ton of lesbianism.” She’s built a career as a commercially successful artist and a home life reliant on a system of suppression and ecstatic release: she makes batches of high-protein waffles for her nonbinary child, Sam, and her music producer husband, Harris, and spends the rest of her day in the garage typing. Sex is a chore she gets into by strapping on heels and heading to Harris’s separate bedroom; she finds real pleasure elsewhere, usually with her friend Jordi, with whom she secretly drinks milkshakes.

She and Harris are devoted teammates; to affirm this, they have a sweet habit of saluting each other across crowded rooms. But, July writes, “we understood the feeling would disappear if we got too close.” At some point, married life became a performance in which even spontaneity was dutifully planned in advance—new waffle toppings—and parenthood made the act both necessary and harder to ignore.

These early scenes are full of awkward, often funny evasions, of failures to connect. They’re also full of vague musings. “What the hell were we all doing? What the hell was going on here on earth?” July writes. And soon after: “Who made the stars? Why is there life on earth?” She decides: “Nobody knows what’s going on. We are thrown across our lives by winds that started blowing millions of years ago.” July may be lightly satirizing her character’s shower thoughts here; still, these are platitudinal even as stoned revelations go. But twee tends not to try to instill wonder so much as describe it directly, and the resulting insights are necessarily broad.

July’s narrator often feigns or shows actual disinterest in specificity; specificity, one senses, would muck up her watery illusions. Jordi, a sculptor who wants to quit her day job at an ad agency, likes to vaguely allude to mythology during chats about the people they know. “Sculptors think beauty is a major theme,” the narrator marvels before impatiently changing the subject. I found myself wanting to read a novel about Jordi instead. At a bar, the narrator overhears “something to do with Michelangelo’s drawings or Da Vinci or whoever it was”; and later, she wonders “if all light, no matter its form—candle, lamp, firefly—was from the sun originally.” Bored by information, literary history, artistic lineages? Sure! Experience, then? “Oh, life!,” July writes. “Such a trickster! Always teaching you a lesson! I didn’t bother working out what the lesson was.”

Both July and her narrator are aware of this tendency to drift  into sweet irreality, the realm of the twee. “Don’t talk about the moon,” her narrator chides herself. “Ask everyone how their day was.” And sometimes her dreaminess lends itself to genuinely affecting moments, affecting because strange, like when she takes a bath with Sam, cradled together in the tub’s “watery womb.” In another defamiliarizing line, she imagines sticking Sam’s fingers and toes in her mouth as they had done to her as a baby, but no, “there was no way to consummate the love of your child.”

In what feels like a self-aware turn, July makes her character’s habit of escaping into nebulous fantasies a point of conflict between her and Harris, who theorizes that there are two kinds of people: “Drivers” and “Parkers.” Drivers move along their life’s course, grateful for daily this’s and that’s; Parkers, on the other hand, get stuck dwelling, imagining, and anxiously anticipating. The narrator takes her husband’s idea personally—she’s a Parker—and resolves to take a cross-country road trip from their home in Los Angeles to New York and back again, to return changed, an exhausted driver oozing gratitude. Projecting herself into “a vision quest-style journey involving a cave, a cliff, a crystal, maybe a labyrinth and a golden ring,” she gears up and heads out—but only makes it as far as a nearby suburb where she parks, literally, for weeks, camping out in a motel room and falling in love with a younger, married man who works at Hertz.

Her optimism, now, feels less naive, less like a show of innocence, and more particular.

When a whiskey company uses her words as its slogan, she uses the earnings to redesign her hideout. A lot happens in the cozy, pink-curtained motel, a private space away from home where her role isn’t so predetermined. She yearns for Davey, the Hertz guy, who loves her too but abstains from sex; instead, she sits on his lap while he gently removes her bloody tampon, and he shows her his dance moves. Around the time he breaks things off, she learns from her doctor that she’s entered perimenopause, which induces panic: Will her desire, and her desirability, plummet? Will she wind up like her father’s mother, who he claims committed suicide at the first sight of gray hairs? July is in some ways an ideal guide to this phase of life; the stakes of aging are high for a twee writer. That fear lights up this novel, which as it progresses becomes her most specific, most ambivalent, and most complex work yet.

On aging, July is often blunt (“How crazy and vain did you have to be to kill yourself when you found out that your main thrill, the thing that really got you going, was gone forever?” she writes. “Maybe not so crazy”); funny (“I made a mental note to stop looking coy in the next three to five years”); and wise (“So much of what I had thought of as femininity was really just youth”). She hosts something like a focus group in the motel, inviting older and younger friends to talk about monogamy and its alternatives. She takes notes but realizes it’s not any one theory on sustaining love over time that moves her but her friends’ collective comfort in the room she’s provided. “I felt untethered from my age and femininity and thus swimming in great new swaths of freedom and time,” July writes. “One might shift again and again like this, through intimacies, and not outpace oldness exactly, but match its weirdness, its flagrant specificity, with one’s own.” July has always written unabashedly about the private lives of women. But this collection of perspectives, a casual ethnography, feels less like an ah-ha moment, a revelation of some taboo, and more like an intricate story with layered perspectives.

It’s also reminiscent of some of July’s earlier projects, including Learning to Love You More, a collage of reader reactions to dozens of prompts she exhibited nationwide and as part of the Whitney Biennial in 2004. Most of the prompts are undeniably twee—the first instructs readers to “make a child’s outfit in an adult size,” another to “make the saddest song”—but a couple encourage curiosity about life after the throes of youth. “Spend time with a dying person.” “Interview someone who has experienced war.”

Later on in All Fours, July’s narrator conducts another survey, asking friends and friends of friends what they like most about menopause, and as before, a range of responses ping in: less pain, ownership of one’s body, a stable mood, less pressure to perform. I imagined these write-ins pinned on a gallery wall and began to wonder whether this wasn’t July’s strength. Like a reporter, she can approach strangers with real curiosity and get them talking; it’s just a matter of asking the right questions.

In the novel’s final half, July’s narrator returns home and suggests an open relationship. Harris agrees, but it’s rocky, and they talk coolly about the prospect of divorcing sometime in the future. “This standstill between us was just life, that was suddenly obvious. There was no way to fix it, nothing to open-source,” July writes. “Life was just a struggle. It was supposed to be.”

The novel ends a few years after the start of that struggle. Eyes still wide but clearer, July’s narrator watches dancers in pink light not unlike the glow of her motel room. A little jealous of their skill, she wonders whether dancers’ careers might be wrecked by accusations of plagiarism. But, no, she thinks, coming to; for her, art like this, wordlessly expressive, is “the one shared dream that isn’t only a dream.” She slips into the space they’ve created, as her friends did in her room. Her optimism now feels less naive, less like a show of innocence and more particular.

She’s not forced to grow up, to commit to a plan, or to accept the world as it is. But she’s not just escaping, either; she’s standing in a small space between fantasy and reality, where, for a moment, something near hope can be felt.