Miranda July’s new novel will make you blush


Maybe, she suggests, there are ways for women to redirect their lives, their relationships and even their fantasies away from sexual irrelevance and toward renewable pleasures.


The multitalented artist Miranda July has written a wildly sexual book about a woman approaching menopause, so of course it’s time for a square old man to pass judgment.

At your service.

But first, is it getting hot in here?

I’ve never reviewed such an explicit novel before. I felt so self-conscious reading “All Fours” on the subway that I tore off the cover. July, 50, seems determined to cure the inhibitions of middle age by stripping away every censorial impulse and plunging us into a bubble bath of erotic candor.

Although such a description may invoke the spirit of Anaïs Nin, July is too funny for that association. In these pages, she’s outrageous and outrageously hilarious. With “All Fours,” perimenopausal readers finally have their own “Portnoy’s Complaint.” But even that comparison doesn’t capture the immediacy of July’s prose, its infallible timing, its palpable sense of performance. Indeed, several unforgettable (and unquotable) sections have the snap and swoop of a transgressive stand-up routine.

The unnamed narrator – “a woman who had success in several mediums” – is a close approximation of July, who’s published books; directed, written and acted on stage and in films; and currently has a solo art show in Milan. Although “All Fours” is labeled a novel, the space between the author’s life and the story’s protagonist is often no wider than a bra strap.

At the opening, the narrator, who’s just turned 45, plans to celebrate by driving from her home in Los Angeles to New York, where she’ll see some theater, visit museums and catch up with old friends. But the journey will be as important as the destination. During this grand cross-country road trip, the narrator imagines becoming “the sort of chill, grounded woman I’d always wanted to be.”

She plans out the six-day itinerary with tourist sites marked along the way. She packs all the snacks she’ll need. She forces herself to have sex with her husband one more time. And then, finally, with some trepidation, she sets off for the East Coast. This will be the longest she’s ever been away from her child.

Thirty minutes later, she stops for gas. Then a meal. A hot young guy named Davey strikes up a conversation. He’s employed by Hertz, and his wife, Claire, works for an interior decorator. “He didn’t question whether any of this was interesting,” the narrator notes. “All handsome young men enjoyed a minor-celebrity treatment that they were unaware of.” But she’s not irritated; she’s titillated. Though just 20 miles from home, she rents a room at a shabby roadside motel. That night she tells her husband she’s made it to Utah.

Her sense of release is transformative. “I was free to do anything I wanted,” she says with astonishment. “No one to make breakfast for, no need to pack a five-part bento box lunch, no need to yell Put on your shoes!” Why should she bother getting back on the road to New York?

July writes with a delightful sense of discontinuity – life as a series of absurd non sequiturs – but there are big themes controlling her work. Here, she’s moving along a subversive highway that stretches from Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” to Claire Vaye Watkins’s “I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness” – stories about women who come to see conventional domestic arrangements as an artistic and sexual grave.

The difference, though, is just how much fun July and her readers have along the way. Convinced that she wants to spend her entire 2½-week vacation holed up in this motel a few miles from home, the narrator hires Claire to redecorate the room with a budget of $20,000 – money she’d recently earned by selling a line about a sex act to a whiskey marketing campaign. While her room is remade with gorgeous new carpet, wallpaper, tile and furniture, she continues to lie about her whereabouts to her family – and begins an emotionally intense affair with Davey.

“What kind of monster makes a big show of going away and then hides out right nearby?” she asks. “But this was no good, this line of thought. This was the thinking that had kept every woman from her greatness … How many times had I turned back at the first ripple of self-doubt? You had to withstand a profound sense of wrongness if you ever wanted to get somewhere new.”

This motel oasis, designed for her comfort, feels to her like a revelation and a revolution. But it’s essentially Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” with KY Jelly. And that’s not the only thing slippery about it. Yes, “All Fours” is much funnier and infinitely sexier than Woolf’s essay, but the novel’s financial naiveté feels almost willful. The narrator imagines that her newfound freedom is predicated on having more confidence and better orgasms, but it’s actually predicated on having better child care and health insurance.

Unfortunately, little of that material reality comes across in this novel, which seems to take place among a set of wealthy women whose personal autonomy is unimpeded by politics or economics. Not that the narrator thinks of herself as powerful or rich – the privileged in America rarely do – but her house has an appraised value of $1.8 million. There are, I bet, some women in America who can’t sell a single sentence for $20,000 – or even half that. As far as “All Fours” is concerned, for them, there is no room in the inn.

But July explores issues of a more universal nature, too. The narrator’s fantasy-fueled affair with Davey and his refusal to have sexual intercourse with her spark a crisis of faith. She’s never before felt so overcome with desire for anyone, and she’s never failed to get what she wants. “This was my first experience of being too old,” she says. “Now suddenly my lust was uncouth, inappropriate.” What’s worse, she realizes, this is no isolated strikeout. “From now on this would be the norm.”

After she returns home and tries to go back to what passes for normal life, a visit to her gynecologist brings even more alarming news: Given her age, her libido is “about to fall off a cliff.” Why had no one warned her? “I had only just come into my sexuality about two months ago and so the thought of losing it … A sob escaped me.”

She’s haunted by stories of her grandmother and aunt, both of whom killed themselves by jumping out of the same window 23 years apart. “I was next in this matriarchal lineage,” she says. Could the cessation of sexual appetite and opportunity be the root cause? Is the only path left open, she wonders, one of prolonged bitterness, the kind of marginality that infuriates the narrator of Claire Messud’s “The Woman Upstairs”?

“Most of us wouldn’t do anything very different, ever,” she admits. “Our yearning and quiet rage would be suppressed and seep into our children and they would hate this about us.”

In response to that grim fate, “All Fours” is a brash, witty, libidinal, “NO!”

The novel may lose some of its narrative drive in the second half, but the narrator refuses to concede that the journey from horny to hoary must end in grizzled insensibility. Maybe, she suggests, there are ways for women to redirect their lives, their relationships and even their fantasies away from sexual irrelevance and toward renewable pleasures.

Trying to predict the wider social impact of any novel is a fool’s errand; the fate of almost all books is oblivion. But something about “All Fours” – its outrageous sexuality, its quirky humor, its earnest search for change – could, who knows, rally a generation of women who will not go gentle into that vaginal dryness.

“We were all witches until very recently,” July writes. “We were cast out and burned at the stake.”

Woe unto anyone who tries that again. This witch won’t burn, but she’s on fire.

#Miranda #Julys #blush

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