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All Fours by Miranda July review – larger than life

All Fours by Miranda July review – larger than life

Miranda July’s characters often wonder what is real and what’s not. How far can our minds take us – dreaming, fantasising, making art – and when must we return to a shared reality? “Real comes and goes and isn’t very interesting,” a therapist advises in July’s 2015 debut novel, The First Bad Man. Most of the characters in her 2005 debut film, Me and You and Everyone We Know, throw themselves dizzyingly into dream and play. In the film, it’s fantasy that enables genuine connection; in the novel, the protagonist has to move beyond fantasy to discover that life’s core lies elsewhere – in the touch of a lover or a baby.

This breezy commitment to inwardness and strangeness has often led to July being described as kooky. I don’t like the word – why not honour strangeness rather than belittling it? – but I did find July’s own character in the film a little gratingly winsome, while the protagonist of The First Bad Man felt too wilfully imagined, or maybe just too dangerously deranged, for me to care deeply about her fate.

Recently July has turned these preoccupations to new uses, raising the stakes and developing something like an ethics of the misfit. Her casually magisterial 2020 film Kajllionaire looked outwards to society’s edges. These grifters were all too plausibly products of Trump’s America, even as the imagery tended towards surrealism. An over­commitment to fantasy in parallel with a total shaving off of dreams and tenderness: this became the stuff of survival, and life and death are at stake too in July’s acerbically clever, radically compassionate new novel, All Fours.

Here the 45-year-old narrator asks even more clamorously whether her life is real – which is unsurprising, given she’s apparently the author of July’s oeuvre. Several years earlier, her child Sam was born prematurely, close to dead, and for eight anguished weeks the narrator and her husband, Harris, were united by “ecstatic” pain. Since then, she’s felt estranged from Harris and reality more largely. She puts more of herself into her art than she reveals to Harris; she lies frequently, believing each lie to reveal “just one of my four or five faces – each real, each with different needs”; and because she’s a “mind-rooted” rather than a “body-rooted fucker”, sex is sustained by elaborate fantasies.

To tether herself to the present, she decides to take a road trip from LA to New York. But just outside LA she locks eyes across her windscreen with Davey, a gauche, handsome attendant at a smalltown garage. She squanders thousands of dollars commissioning Davey’s wife Claire to exquisitely redesign the room she takes in an ugly hotel, and there she remains for three weeks, joined every afternoon by Davey himself, with whom she discovers an astonishing mutual but unconsummated passion. He turns out to be foremost an incandescent, preternaturally airborne dancer, and through dancing they find forms of intimacy that finally make life seem real.

Returning home she must somehow make sense of the rest of her life. She’s aware that her agonising descent from ecstasy to misery coincides with symptoms of the menopause; a foisting of reality whose deathly overtones have had literal consequences in her family – her grandmother and aunt both killed themselves in their 50s. Answer comes through a radical acceptance of mortality, partly shaped by her face-off with death at Sam’s birth. Sex is part of this. July’s characteristic dry observational style can turn with equal ease to insouciant aphorism or to the lyrical eloquence with which she writes the extravagant, ungendering, transfiguring sex that takes the narrator to extremes of her own inwardness while forcing new kinds of contact and honesty, including with Harris. Meanwhile, the narrator surveys her friends, turning this explicitly into a novel about the menopause.

In this July is part of a generation of novelists seeking new forms for midlife – whether it’s “hot-flush noir”, or the plotless, evacuated voice of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. The classic menopause novel remains Doris Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark, another story where a woman abandons her own life and discovers new forms of rage and lust. Lessing’s novel of dark regeneration had life and death stakes, as July’s does. July’s gains added freight from her deep commitment to autofiction across mediums. Because of her film-making and performance art, July exists three-dimensionally for us in ways other narrators don’t. She’s made art out of herself dancing, crying, kissing. Added to this are the literal echoes of her life: she, too, has a semi-estranged husband and non-binary child; even her dead mother and aunt are referenced in the acknowledgments. As the self-referentiality goes from playful to serious, I found myself anxiously uneasy on behalf of the child whose existence off the page shouldn’t matter, except that July constructs a world where it has special resonance. By tangling explicitly with reality across mediums she pushes autofiction to new limits, revealing how good this genre is at questioning reality. How can the narrator make her own peculiarities part of a lived life? How can she get real in the face of death if what remains most real is art?

Dance and sex are what allow access to the transcendence that July portrays with unashamed magniloquence. Having opened herself to divinity, the narrator finds that her hotel room isn’t a kook’s misplaced game, it’s a lesson in how to live. “I could always be how I was in the room. Imperfect, ungendered, game, unashamed. I had everything I needed in my pockets, a full soul.”

Source: theguardian.com