No One Belongs Here More Than You: Stories BY Miranda July. Scribner. Hardcover, 224 pages. $23.

The cover of No One Belongs Here More Than You: Stories

Renaissance woman Miranda July is a quirky, prolific video, Web, and performance artist. In 2005, she snatched a fistful of awards for her first feature film, Me and You and Everyone We Know. (She won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance and the Camera d’Or at Cannes, to note just the biggies.) Now, with No One Belongs Here More than You, a collection of sixteen stories, July makes her literary maiden voyage.

These sagas of modern folly are packed with angst, manic energy, dark wit, and odd fancies—a distinctive July cocktail. One story opens, “Before he died, my father taught me his finger moves. They were movements for getting a woman off.” Though the tales employ dialogue and a dash of action, they largely consist of dramatic monologues by characters trapped in and trying to break free from the solitary confinement of their own heads. Conveyed in lively prose, the characters’ inner discourses swing from small, solipsistic obsessions to sweeping, cosmic visions.

Wildly self-conscious, July’s mostly female protagonists agonize over how to interact with other Homo sapiens and whether such relationships are ever worth the pain. “People just need a little help because they are so used to not loving,” a character opines. “It’s like scoring the clay to make another piece of clay stick to it.” Sex is not a big help, though, like aspirin, it brings momentary relief, and sexual preference is as changeable here as identity is on Halloween. Though the near impossibility of making real contact with another person is a shared theme, the stories as a whole emit a kind of brightness. Yet while the book’s tone is wistfully, determinedly utopian, it’s also pessimistic. July achieves this contradiction by way of a delicate reaction between hope and dejection. A woman employed at a peep show sits in a glass booth awaiting her first customer, observing that “the fluorescent lights droned with a timeless constancy. I looked up at them and imagined that they, not the stars, had hung over the long creation of civilization. They had droned over ice ages and Neanderthals, and now they droned over me.”

While the connections and transformations her characters seek never quite work out, their inner landscapes are painfully, and amusingly, exposed. Notions about the outside world range from idiosyncratic to borderline crazy. While conversing with a small boy, a character muses, “It was a beautiful day and someone was talking to me of his own free will. But I could see the end in sight; the boy’s shirt had cartoon characters on it and the cartoon characters were leaning away from me, they were taking a step back as the boy stepped forward.” On some level, these loopy perspectives are utterly justified—all-too-recognizable reactions to an off-kilter universe. And because these ambivalent citizens are so attuned to what is strangest and most vivid about being alive during this particular blip on the historical timeline, there is satisfaction, and maybe even epiphany, to be had in reading messages beamed from inside their heads.