Thursday, June 30, 2011

Speaking of Speaking - #40 – ALSO, LIBRARY MONTH CONTINUES!

STORY:  “I Kiss a Door” by Miranda July


BASICALLY:  Looking back on the details of her interactions with a former friend, a woman realizes that the signs of the friend’s big secret were there all along.

So, I sort of want to hate Miranda July.  She’s one of those wunderkinder too bright to look at—writer, filmmaker, actor, etc. etc. etc., plus exceptionally pretty, plus my age, plus recipient of all kinds of awards and critical accolades and jury prizes and so yes, sometimes I just want to throw up my hands, toss down a vodka tonic, and crawl under a rock.  Oh sure, oh sure, I’ll drunkenly mutter to myself, it’s *easy* to be published in The Paris Review when you’re already perfect in every way.  And then I’ll belch and fall into fitful dreams of losing the Tuscaloosa County Pie Eating Contest to a members-only club of pygmy chimpanzees.

They’re called coping strategies, people.

Unfortunately for my planned slide into bitterness, alcoholism, and night terrors at the hands of these damned injustices, Miranda July is, by all appearances, actually a very nice person who has actually done a lot to earn all the praise that's been heaped upon her.  When I heard her talking on a podcast about her writing, I found her intelligent and likeable.  Click on her book link above or head over to her personal site and notice how casual and quirky and charming she manages to be.  So, I suppose that, instead of despising her and making up nasty rumors to insert into her Wikipedia page and feeling generally venomous and petty, I should just sit back and try to learn something useful from her.  Argh, maturity.  I haz it!

“I Kiss a Door” is short and on first glance, feels slight, almost underdeveloped.  It doesn’t branch out from its center.  By “center,” I mean in this case the mind of its narrator, a somewhat self-involved woman who is essentially relating her shock at a piece of gossip she just heard.  But on reflection, I think the story instead branches inward, becoming deeper and more layered precisely because it doesn’t move around much and have a bunch of plot pushing things forward.  The narrator’s thoughts and judgments about her friend Eleanor, by remaining enclosed in her own mind, become as much about herself as about that other person.  Eleanor’s particular relationship with her father, especially, but also her troubled views on creation and art and freedom, become a prism through which the narrator sees her own views on these things—though she can’t acknowledge it even to herself.  No, in her own mind, it’s just a Well I’ll be damned kind of moment as she grasps something about Eleanor she never before realized.

In terms of technique, it’s notable that a large percentage of this story takes place through dialogue.  Interestingly, July chooses, in this story as elsewhere, not to mark her dialogue with quotation marks.

I don’t know what it’s like for you, but when I read dialogue that doesn’t use quotes, it feels completely different in my mind.  Such a little thing, but it makes so much difference.  For me, the effect is what I’d call flattening, though if you ask me to explain that I’ll just stammer and try to change the subject.  Without quotation marks to set them off, the words feel pushed into the page—even though they’re structured much like normal dialogue, like the specific things that people actually said, they feel less certain.

I have my suspicions that to never, ever use quotation marks is something of an affectation, but I do think it’s an effective technique in this particular story.  We’re learning about the past (and by extension, the present) through the memories of the narrator, and the fact that all of the dialogue occurs in this flat and unmarked manner only seems to underscore that it’s not a completely reliable record of events.  Not that it’s an unreliable narrator in the strict literary sense of the term, but that any first person account is by its natured skewed.  Plus, all the dialogue in the story occurs between the narrator and another person—there aren’t any group conversations, or reports of others’ conversations.  Here’s how “I Kiss a Door” opens:
Now that I know, it seems so obvious. Suddenly, there is nothing I remember that doesn’t contain a clue. I remember a beautiful blue wool coat with flat silver buttons. It fit her perfectly, it even gripped her.

Where did you find that coat?

My father bought it for me.

Really? It’s so cool.

It just arrived this morning.

He picked it out? How did he know how to pick something so cool?

I don’t know.
Notice that, lacking quotation marks or dialogue tags to clarify things, July sticks to back-and-forth dialogue that’s both simple and brief.  No speeches, no ambiguous attributions.  Her narrative paragraphs are set off partly because they are longer—i.e., visually—and partly because of the cue words July uses to begin them.  The example above doesn’t make it obvious, but other non-dialogue paragraphs begin with things like “It seemed unfair that…” and “When Shy Panther played at…” and “By the time Thunderheart came out…”  It would be difficult to mistake these phrases for the narrator’s dialogue.  Quietly and carefully, July works hard to make sure that these shifts don’t annoy or confuse her readers.

And now.

I have absolutely no transition (Miranda July would have thought of a transition…), but hey everyone, it’s Library Month! My father suggests I call “Library Month ±” since, as I have explained, NO ONE has any idea how long it’ll actually last.  Feel free to think of it in mathematical terms!  Meanwhile, I’d like to point your mouse-clicks to some library-related coolness:
  • The literary blog MobyLives recently drew my attention to what census figures can tell us about the personal and professional lives of librarians over the past century or so.  And good news, because the librarian profession is no longer in decline, having apparently found its cultural niche.
  • Except maybe not.  The Daily Dish highlights the ongoing debate.  Fie!  Librarians are cool.
  • In fact, take a look at some photographic evidence of their coolness in a series of gleeful posts over on writer/artist Laini Taylor’s blog.  She’s just returned from her first ALA annual conference and has posted tons of great on-the-town photos and book porn.  Enjoy!