Scoop Review of Books

When We Wished We Were Orphans

Text Publishing 2007. ( $28.) Reviewed by BERNARD STEEDS


Miranda July writes beautifully. Her dialogue crackles. Her plots writhe. Her prose floats over surfaces, hinting at what’s beneath. And, yet, I can’t think of a single person I’d recommend this book to.

There’s no denying July’s talent. The feature film Me and You and Everyone we Know, which she wrote and directed, won the Camera d’Or at Cannes. No-One Belongs Here More Than You won the world’s richest short story prize, the Frank O’Connor short story award. The website she created to promote the book was a hit. And, when she’s not writing and film-making, she’s making performance art.

On their own, some of the stories in this collection are successful. The Shared Patio, about a woman who believes her neighbour is falling in love with her when he is in fact having an epileptic fit, is kinda fun. Like many of July’s stories, it’s protagonist lives in a fantasy world that reality cannot match.

Something That Needs Nothing, in which a woman goes to work in a peep show after she breaks up from her girlfriend, is also strong. And Mon Plaisir contains a superb scene in which a couple get jobs as film extras and briefly rediscover their passion as they mime dialogue across a restaurant table.

There are also some successful shorter pieces. The Man on the Stairs, four pages of gothic fantasy about a woman who meets a headless man while her partner sleeps. And This Person, though it could be a technical exercise, manages to work as a sharp, funny tale about unrealistic hopes (‘Something tremendous is about to happen to this person. This person has dressed for the occasion. This person has hoped and dreamed and now it is really happening.’)

But the impact of these stories is weakened by others that explore similar themes with less success. From story to story there’s just too much the same – same narrative and emotional tone, same themes, same character types, until the whole becomes so much less than the sum of its parts.

There’s quite a bit of self-conscious weirdness – in one story, two sisters have phone sex before one fantasises about killing the other, and another story begins: ‘Before he died, my father taught me his finger moves… for getting a woman off.’
And alienation is such a stock theme in this collection that, in the end, it all becomes just a bit too much. One story begins: ‘In an ideal world, we would have been orphans.’ And in another the narrator comments: ‘Sometimes I lie in bed trying to decide which of my friends I truly care about, and I always come back to the same conclusion: none of them.’
Poor them.

Bernard Steeds is a Wellington writer.