‘The Swim Team’ by Miranda July

A woman recounts a time when she gave swimming lessons to three elderly people in Belvedere. Since there are no bodies of water and no pools in Belvedere, she trained them in her flat, using bowls of water to practise breathing underwater, and jumping from the chair onto the bed to practise diving. It’s painfully funny, as you would expect from Miranda July. And yet beneath the mad, slapstick energy is a depth and sadness – I think it is that contrast which explains why I can come back to this story again and again and still find it so funny.

First published in Harper’s, 2007, and available for subscribers to read online here. Collected in No One Belongs Here More Than You, Canongate, 2007

‘The Metal Bowl’ by Miranda July

The American writer Miranda July was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Short Story Award in 2018, and I remember reading her knowing, deviant story, ‘The Metal Bowl’, over lunch at work, and laughing out loud as this eccentric story progressed. In it, I connected with so many great sentences (the kind of thoughts that you think are unique, as you haven’t seen articulated before, but the writer puts them clearly on the page): “If I went to the mall immediately and got a new sheet, then the chore wouldn’t have time to gather weight. Once a task goes on the to-do list it settles in, grows roots – the trick is to pre-empt that.” ‘The Metal Bowl’ is about a woman who is grappling with ageing, with domesticity and the tedium of marriage – and who is haunted by an adult video she filmed in her youth. “The video shoot became the central sexual experience of my life; to this day, I can’t orgasm unless I imagine that I’m the pale man, the dad, or the young lesbian watching it, sometimes all of them together, crowded around one computer screen.” The protagonist wants to feel alive – and wanted – again, and finds a moment of clarity and sexual tension with her neighbour during an earthquake. But it is short-lived. “Joel had taken the exquisite energy of our experience and ploughed it back into his marriage. How wise. This option had never occurred to me.” The narrator ultimately reconnects with her husband in a gloriously outlandish (and remarkably touching) scene, involving the title’s metal bowl.

First published in The New Yorker, 4 September 2017. You can read it online here or listen to it read aloud by novelist Emma Cline here. The story was shortlisted for the Sunday Times / Audible Short Story Award in 2018, there’s an interview with Miranda July here.

‘Roy Spivey’ by Miranda July

When I read Miranda July’s first collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You, I was delighted to discover her. I love the apparent simplicity of the story, the way it works on the absence of an action rather than the main character undertaking one. The tone is not as knowing as Lorrie Moore’s, from whom I guess, she learnt. July subverts the form a little, which is what the story form allows. It’s not a showy or tricksy story. In fact, as it hinges on a girl’s interest in a movie star she meets on a plane, it seems at first to be verging into the well-worn territory of a young woman transfixed by a male. But it’s not like that. For all the man’s desire to communicate, she fails to take up his offer. The story begins in a small intimate way, the close proximity of plane seats and opens out to years having passed. It’s deft but conveys a sweep of longing and the great and forever question we all address to ourselves, ‘What if…?”

First published in The New Yorker, June 2007, and available to subscribers here. Or listen to David Sedaris reading it here. It is collected in The Book of Other People, edited by Zadie Smith, Penguin, 2008

‘Something That Needs Nothing’ by Miranda July

I read this story for the first time when I was about nineteen and it really did make me wonder whether I did, in fact, belong here. (Though it took me another decade to understand that I was queer). What drew me to this story, and to the collection from which it is drawn, is the (quite comical) seriousness with which she charts her characters’ fantasies, no matter how ridiculous or outlandish, and how they function almost as a third partner in intimate relationships. 

First published in The New Yorker, September 2006, and available online here. Collected in Nobody Belongs Here More Than You, Scribner/Canongate, 2007, as well as in My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead: Great Love Stories from Chekhov to Munro, ed. Jeffrey Eugenides, HarperPress/HarperCollins, 2008

‘The Metal Bowl’ by Miranda July

Like many of Miranda July’s narrators, the woman in ‘The Metal Bowl’ has trouble letting people know who she is and what she really wants. It’s a long and complicated story, with many strands and long detours into the past that then loop back into the present. A married woman – who adores her husband – goes out to buy a fitted sheet. She notices a handsome man looking at her. This has happened to her before, though not for a long time. She thinks the man recognises her from a porn video she starred in when she was young and broke. The story swoops off into an account of the circumstances that led to her to make this video, the shoot itself, and how the experience affected her. Her own sexuality, she explains, is now

oriented around myself in that video and anyone who’d seen it. There was only one boyfriend I didn’t tell. He was a very classy man, emotionally speaking, and I didn’t want to give him any indication of basket-casery. After I married him, I kept meaning to bring it up, to draw him into the fold of my sexuality, such as it was. But I waited too long; we were so close now.

This is the real theme: the enormous silences that can exist within the intimacy of marriage. The ending is both moving and surprising. But along the way there are plenty of painfully funny little shocks and moments when the writer whips the rug from under our feet. The story was written to serve as an introduction to a book of photographs by the artist Friedl Kubelka. In an interview on the New Yorker website July discusses the way that came about and she says about other writers’ work: “I’m often drawn in by a description of a woman thinking something familiar that’s never been articulated before.” This, I think, is something she herself does very well.

First published in The New Yorker, 4 September 2017. You can read it online here or listen to it read aloud by novelist Emma Cline here. The story was shortlisted for the Sunday Times / Audible Short Story Award in 2018, there’s an interview with Miranda July here

‘Something That Needs Nothing’/ Making Love in 2003’ by Miranda July

“In an ideal world, we would have been orphans.” Two sad, strange and brilliant stories about eviscerating loneliness. One involves a stripper in an itchy wig, hopelessly in love with her callous best friend; the other, intensely and almost defiantly twee and weird, involves an intergalactic dark blob that deflowers the narrator. July writes with a mordant directness that conveys great emotional depth and complexity.

First published in The New Yorker, September 2006 and available online here. Collected in No one belongs here more than you, Canongate, 2007

‘Roy Spivey’ by Miranda July

‘The longer I stood there, the longer I had to stand there. It was intricate and exponential.’

Miranda July is my guilty short story pleasure. At first I snobbishly felt she wasn’t challenging enough; no puzzles to solve or complex narratives to decode. But then I realised stories can just give you joy. July specialises in presenting imperfect interactions between awkward people in a warm, judgement-free way that makes social apocalypse funny. In ‘Roy Spivey’, an ordinary woman – a self-confessed ‘pushover’ with anxiety issues – ends up sitting on a plane next to a ‘Hollywood heartthrob’. She watches him sleep, he spills gossip about his famous wife, he Febreezes her when she gets sweaty, they spend the flight having ‘the conversation that is specifically about everything’ and then, at his initiation, they bite each other. They hold hands as the plane lands. He gives her his private number, which she never calls, until it’s too late (“I looked at the number and felt a tidal swell of loss. I had waited too long”). The audio version of this, read by David Sedaris on the New Yorker Podcast, is perfection.

In The Book of Other People (Penguin, 2007)