Here’s my third frame tale spotlight, which focuses on It Chooses You, a book by Los Angeles filmmaker Miranda July. Note that this is a non-fiction entry–read on to see why I thought it was worthy of a little rule bending.
I’m trying to remember how I stumbled upon It Chooses You, but the moment is lost to me. I believe it was while browsing goodreads but it could have been a suggestion for my nook. In any case, it was an electronic kind of moment, which in itself is significant–I’ve been quite conflicted of late because part of me is very much a traditional bibliophile whose deepest longing is to skulk in secret corners of bookstores and libraries; on the other hand, my first novel was picked up by a publisher who focuses on e-books and I’ve forced myself to embrace this brave new world of publishing that can accomplish things that just aren’t possible with a “real” book.
In any event, I do remember the first thing about July’s book that grabbed my attention. The title — It Chooses You. I assumed that “it” was some sort of cosmic-may-the-force-be-with-you type of serendipity, which is a concept I love a little more than I probably should. I also found the synopsis intriguing: a screen-writer with writer’s block begins obsessively reading an old-fashioned classified ad circular called the PennySaver. Her curiosity about the people who place these off-beat ads for things like bullfrog tadpoles and used photo albums grows stronger and stronger until it takes over the previous project and she embarks on a quest to tell their stories.
I decided to go for it. I downloaded the book, began reading . . . and promptly ran into a big fat problem.
I just didn’t like it.
July’s voice struck me as trying a bit too hard, bordering on pretentious. Sure, she was talented and clever and urbane, much as David Sedaris and Julie Powell are talented and clever and urbane. And like Sedaris and Powell, July seemed a little too eager to share intimate details and shock readers into attention, which always seems like a cheap shot to me. (But what do I know—these people are wildly famous and filthy rich whereas I am neither.) I worried that– like Me Talk Pretty One Day or Julie and Julia— It Chooses You might turn out to be a book I couldn’t finish.
But, never fear! Clever readers have probably figured out that this scenario did not occur. As a matter of fact, I not only finished It Chooses You, I reread portions of it multiple times and I’m still wondering if this initial off-putting vibe was deliberate craft. However it happened, the contrast between the opening and the ending of the book deepened its transformation from something that felt contrived into a shockingly insightful and even sweet view of life. Once July began tracking down the advertisers and interviewing them, I was hooked. By the last page, I was feeling goosebumps, which is pretty much my book review equivalent of five fresh tomatoes, to use a highly technical film term.
So why did I end up loving this book so much?
I think the biggest reason has to do with the unexpected revelations I experienced as I followed July on her discovery of the humanity, courage, and resilience of these wonderfully quirky yet also somewhat boring and ordinary people. Other reviewers have described July’s work as an artful combination of the mundane and the extraordinary. Words such as “poignant” “significant” “offbeat” and “random” have all been used in an attempt to pin down her craft. I echo the idea that her uniqueness relies on an almost magical conflation of disparate factors, a juxtaposition creating enough turbulence to buoy the reader up to a plane where it’s possible to see the spirit throbbing within the most outwardly mundane people. I’m tempted to give examples and drop hints about the characters in the stories, but I despise spoilers and I want future readers to enjoy meeting them, too, but I will say they include rich and poor, wholesome and unsavory, old and young, male, female and in-between. Several are trying to raise a tiny bit of cash for a noble purpose or a life-time goal, and their drive and determination not to give up are inspiring.
It Chooses You is also incredibly funny. The last book I remember laughing at so much was Handling Sin. This book was not just funny but that unique uplifting type of funny that carries the reader to new insights. I used kobo to read the book on my computer and as I experimented with the highlight feature, I had the urge to highlight a gem of wisdom hidden in the humor on almost every page.
Another draw for me was the insider’s view of the Los Angeles area. I tend to think of LA as somehow outside the realm of life as I know it, kind of like an English-speaking Tokyo. But thanks to July’s cozy accounts of different neighborhoods and her rambles through various suburbs, I came to know LA as a company town not so different from others I’ve known.
Finally, as a writer, I found two aspects of July’s book uniquely relevant. The first was how these complete strangers opened up to her and shared their lives. It reminded me of when I was working as a newspaper reporter in a little town in Tennessee. I was often taken aback by how much people wanted their story to be told. Their need to express themselves, to be heard and recorded, seemed to bubble up on its own. The second aspect I identified with was the underlying theme of creativity, and particularly writing. The book delved into the basic question: Is writer’s block real? What does this procrastination, this paralysis, mean? Does it ultimately serve a purpose—is it a kind of ordeal or trial the writer must overcome in order to go on to the next stage?
July’s book is non-fiction—a first for my arbitrary collection of frame tales. What makes it worthy of inclusion in my mind is that it is strongly creative and even literary non-fiction—it has meaningful story movement, character development, and unique narrative voice. This is a genre that is especially hot right now and it is one that works quite well as a frame tale. Each individual story furthered July’s quest while it also shed light on the other stories. By the time July meets her last subject, she is ready. The final story morphs and changes until it becomes the launching pad for the film she was trying to make in the first place, a film with the looming title of The Future. I hope to see it soon.
For more discussion on the genre of frame tales, see the notes on the book page for The Button Collector.