Stranger in a Freaky Land: Reading Miranda July in Los Angeles
by Maura Roosevelt
Twelve hours after stepping off my plane from New York, I sat under fluorescent lights in new teacher orientation at one of the most elite private high schools in Los Angeles. It was late August and I was in a daze— I had gotten married two weeks earlier, packed up my Brooklyn apartment, left my college teaching job, and arrived in a new town. My now husband is a filmmaker, and we had made this move for his career. When we de-boarded the plane he kissed me hard on the mouth (newlyweds!), scuttled off to set, and I have rarely seen him since. In the six months since this born and bred East Coaster moved to the Sunshine State, I have been surrounded by grade-grubbing sixteen year olds and myself.
One of my new favorite pastimes is walking around my Los Feliz neighborhood while peering into lit up windows. If you see a grouchy New Yorker spying on you at dusk: hello. A Californian oddity that I can’t get passed, literally, are the gates that block off the entrances to most houses here. A clear divider between the public and private sphere, announcing, Stranger, you are not permitted in my house, my life, my head. What happens behind the gate is the business of the owner of that gate, and no one else.
In the first few weeks of teaching at this highbrow school the other teachers and administrators welcomed me warmly, each repeating the same statement: “You’re really going to like it here.” At the start of every job I’ve had in New York I have heard one of two statements: “Get ready to work your ass off” or “You’re lucky to be employed.” The L.A. school is structurally beautiful, made up of many stone buildings surrounded by outdoor cafeteria tables, outdoor lockers, and a staff of full-time gardeners. And yet with this repeated assurance my happiness, and the strained smile that accompanied it, I began to be suspicious of the sunny façade.
Miranda July’s novel The First Bad Man is, like many good novels, about a misfit who travels a rocky and a-typical path until she eventually comes to find happiness. July’s protagonist is Cheryl Glickman, a pear-shaped middle-aged Angelino who works at self-defense center called Open Palm, has a psychological disorder— a “globus hystericus,” or imagined lump, in her throat that prevents her from swallowing with ease— and a longstanding unrequited desire for Phillip, an older man who sits on her company’s board. But Cheryl, for all her lonely normalcy, is weirder than she appears on the surface. She believes she’s cosmically connected to a being called Kubelko Bondy, who can be found in the bodies of varying babies she’s able to silently communicate with. Occasionally she talks to her own excrement. She uses only one plate and one bowl in her kitchen, in order to protect herself from living in unwashed filth on the occasion that she suddenly fall into a debilitating depression.
We, the reader, are in on the private knowledge of Cheryl’s oddities. We know what the rest of Cheryl’s world does not: exactly what happens behind her big Californian gate. The plot swings into motion when the twenty year old daughter of Cheryl’s bosses moves into Cheryl’s house. This girl, named Clee, is a big, gorgeous television addict who disrupts the psychotically ordered existence Cheryl created for herself. Then Clee takes her disruption a step further: she beats Cheryl up. Then she does it again. These acts of physical violence become the grand secret of the book. The fact that Cheryl enjoys these scary acts, and is eventually sexually aroused by them, is a fact told to no other character except Cheryl’s therapist. The dictionary labels a “Freak of Nature” as: “an abnormally developed individual of any species; in recent use (esp. in US) a living curiosity exhibited in a show.” Cheryl becomes a freak, someone who is turned on by this abnormal thing, and the novel becomes a show; the reader watches with curiosity and perverse enjoyment, shoveling popcorn into his mouth.
July’s Los Angeles is in many way cartoonish: her characters visit “Color Therapists” and are prescribed the “essence of red;” they believe in the healing power of crystals. People are hired at Ralph’s without even applying for a job. If Cheryl and Clee are not realistic characters, then the novel becomes a thought experiment, more a farce than a reflection of real life. Maybe.
The thing that rings of reality is that the Californian characters do not make demands of each other, and they certainly do not intrude on one another’s affairs. Cheryl’s gardener, who she bizarrely assumes is homeless, accidently walks in on Clee and Cheryl in the act: he catches them mid-battle. His response? “…it’s your private business.” Later on in the story when Clee is seemingly in trouble, her mother shows up at Cheryl’s house and is initially denied entrance. Cheryl capitulates eventually, and lets the mother in to use the bathroom, at which point we the readers are braced for the berserk behavior of a deeply worried parent. But the mother simply uses the bathroom and leaves. Cheryl says Clee’s mother, “exited the house without looking at either of us; the Volvo rumbled away.” After reading this scene I made my slow and uneventful morning commute down the 101 to the high school, and tried to picture a scenario where my own East Coast mother would encounter such a situation. My Boston-born mother is full of laughter, red hair, and angry ambition that all three of her daughters have inherited with pride. There is no imagined world where she’s not dragging me out by the collar and shoving me into the rumbling car right beside her.
July’s first public reading of the novel was run by the wonderful independent bookstore Skylight Books, but held at a sound stage in Silverlake. This was my first literary event at a sound stage— I was unsure of what it would look like. It looked like giant room packed with hundreds of bodies, few of which were older than forty, many of which wore oversized sweaters, floppy hats after eight pm, high heeled boots, and red lipstick. These book reading masses, in their particular garb, smiled at me. People were pleasant; the air was noticeably absent of tense and competitive energy; someone moved over to let me sit down. We were not in Manhattan anymore, Toto.
July’s comments from the stage were funny, peppered with endearingly self-deprecating quips. She sported a short flippy haircut and awesome leather pants. In the question-and-answer period, she excitedly told the crowd she’d wanted the cover to be a plain black so that it would contrast with the lively, hot pink design on the inside pages. With a mischievous smile she explained, “It’s perfect! This book is meant to be in drag.” The audience collectively giggled and moved on. But wasn’t this metaphor mixed up? When someone is in drag, isn’t all the glamour and pizazz on the outside?
The dictionary gives an alternate, slang, definition of “freak” as “a person who enjoys unorthodox sexual practices; a fetishist.” According to this slang Cheryl’s penchant for erotic violence marks her a freak— but not outwardly, or in any public way that could offend others’. Unlike a drag queen, Cheryl keeps all her unconventionality contained in her bedroom or her therapist’s office or locked behind her big front gate. As I scan the soundstage, I wonder: if I can understand July’s loveable and pathetic Cheryl, will I begin to also understand Los Angeles? And then: why do I so fervently need to understand this place?
Miranda July appears to have a lot of friends. Lena Dunham thanks July in her acknowledgements for her memoir Not that Kind of Girl and July thanks Dunham in her acknowledgements for The First Bad Man. This friendship makes sense: they’re both artists of the screen and the page, they both support the work and politics of people with vaginas, and moreover they both have twee-little haircuts and have most likely spent hours of their lives listening to Belle and Sebastian. (Admittedly, I would jump at the chance to spend the afternoon hiking with them in Topanga. Afterwards I would buy them both detox teas.)
The makeup of Dunham book is wildly different than July’s: it’s autobiographical non-fiction, told from the perspective of a New Yorker. But like July, Dunham addresses the issues of sexual violence, most blatantly when she recounts an upsetting experience that she had in college with a Campus Republican named “Barry.” She makes the claim that the sex between her and Barry one heavily intoxicated night was perhaps not-quite-rape, but was certainly not consensual. My stance on Dunham’s book is similar to my stance on the show Girls: the most interesting part about it is her forthright, tell-it-like-is, honesty. Does this honesty make her and her characters look silly and spoiled? Quite often. But it’s still refreshing. After explaining the not-quite-rape situation to her writers’ room, who did not find it funny, then to her boyfriend, who cried upon hearing about it, Dunham comes to the conclusion that this experience she had was a really bad one. July’s character of Cheryl is attacked by a young girl, first physically, and then sexually. Is it Cheryl’s right to make sense of this non-consensual attack in any way she wants? Of course. But although Cheryl ends up happy at the close of the novel, the reader is never let in on Cheryl’s honest estimation of these attacks. Perhaps Cheryl is confused about what’s happened to her. Or perhaps it’s just not the style of our Los Angeles-based author to straight up tell the readers how her characters feel. I imagine July reading Dunham’s book while slurping a smoothie in the sun, surrounded by potted cacti. She appreciates what her friend is doing on the page, and yet— she acknowledges before jumping into her late-morning mediation sesh— her own Californian soul would never be that forthright.
In my first semester of teaching at the high school, two culturally significant events occurred: the protests in Ferguson, MO and the accusation of a horrific rape taking place on the UVA campus. As an educator my instinct was to address these issues with students, creating space for them to think critically about the actions and reactions involved in these events. But I knew that if I brought up these subjects at school, I would be bringing them up alone. The colleagues who had greeted me so warmly at the start of the year no longer said good morning when I walked into the English office. I would talk about Macbeth for four hours of classes, eat lunch at my desk, attend a faculty meeting where it was my job to listen. The commute home took twice as long as the drive to work. I graded papers for a few hours then went to a yoga class where I stared through my downward-dogged knees at some healing crystals hanging on the wall. My colleagues’ ghostly voices echoed, “You’re really going to like it here.” I argued with myself: was there anything really not to like?
The new president of the school, imported from the East Coast, insisted that we have an all-day faculty development meeting on the topic of diversity. An effeminate black man was flown in from New York. He gave an auditorium full of teachers four hours of a Power Point presentation, then set us all to work listing our identities and privileges. We groaned, checked our email, whispered about traffic and the papers waiting to be graded at home. At the end of the Diversity Day each department was asked to sit outside at the Queen Palm shaded cafeteria tables, enjoy light refreshments, and brainstorm concrete ways it could incorporate greater reverence for diversity into its classes.
The entire English department was white, including myself. We could, though, be divided easily into groups along age lines: the young women, the middle agers who had been there long enough to enroll their children in the school, and the cadre of old men. The young women, the group to which I belonged, was comprised of three outwardly similar, scarf-and-converse wearing thirty-somethings. I assumed they believed in affirmative action, in creative writing. I suspected they taught Slam Poetry. “Let’s teach more books by women and people of color,” I suggested, turning to my floppy-hatted compatriots for back up. They nodded, hesitantly. I did not know them.
The white haired white men snickered. “I will not sacrifice quality in order to teach a book written in dialect.” There were two minutes of discussion before everyone shrugged, and the conversation was shelved. When I arrived in the English office the next morning the cadre of white men gossiped in the corner: “That workshop was straight out of the 1980s.” “These problems simply don’t exist anymore.” “I’ll tell you what we need to do in this department: continue, continue, continue. We’ve been successful for the past thirty years.”
Each of these men backs his car out of his suburban driveway at six-thirty in the morning. He zips down the freeway, pulls into his school parking spot with his last name spray painted on it, where it’s been spray painted for three decades. He spends the day arguing about Shakespeare, Melville, occasionally Hemingway. His commute home takes twice as long as the drive in. In his daily life, he does not bump into any pressing social problems. I don’t either, now. Yet people were marching through the streets in Ferguson, New York, and downtown L.A. The boys we would soon release from our high school would join fraternities at various elite colleges. Didn’t these issues press on everyone? I was confused, but I wanted to be egalitarian, to consider my colleagues’ viewpoint. If you cannot see the problem, how can you confirm its existence? If you have the ability to look away, why would you not?
On a warm January night I go jogging after dark, all alone. As I move along the base of Griffith Park I look south and west over the precipice of palm trees into a valley of pinpoint lights that makes up Hollywood. Behind me blue ridges of the hills seem to glow in the darkness. All is simultaneously still and twinkling. Los Angeles can be breathtaking. No matter where I go here, I seem to be looking down on the whole city. I picture my cadre of old men, alone in their houses just a few miles away, strutting around in negligees and feather boas behind locked doors. Perhaps like Cheryl, they are simply private Californian freaks. Maybe I am beginning to understand this town! I laugh to myself, because there’s no one else to laugh with, then take a left onto a residential street. It is prime window watching time.
The middle of the school year has arrived, the first semester is about to end. To quit a teaching job in the middle of the year is dramatic, irresponsible, and generally a bad career move. My New York brain has cycled through these facts again and again, preventing me from sleeping well for months. Back in my apartment I kick off my sneakers off and sit down to write an email to the Evan, the head of the English department. “I’m sorry but I have to quit. I just don’t fit in here.”
Evan responds a day later. His email reads, “And I’m sorry to hear that. I don’t understand it, but I won’t ask you to explain yourself. This is clearly your own private decision.”
Maura Roosevelt‘s writing has appeared in print or online in Joyland Magazine, The Nation, Failbetter.com, Hobart, and elsewhere. Maura is a lecturer at NYU, where she teaches essay writing, although she is currently living in California and completing a novel.