So much it hurts

<strong>No One Belongs Here More Than You</strong>

Miranda July <em>Canongate, 224pp, £9.99</em>

No One Belongs Here More Than You is a collage of embarrassments, longings that are irregular at first glance and joy at the rare mercy of others.

In "Making Love in 2003", one of the short stories gathered here, a woman finds a disembodied love she'd lost years earlier. Her lover is a mysterious black shape that enters her room one night ("I knew right away it was a sexual predator because it was vibing me") and proceeded to bring her almost unsurvivable pleasure. The black shape promises her that it will return in human form, as a man named Steve. And the joy of actually finding Steve is like a concussion that forces her to keep re-establishing her place in space and time: "There was my hand, the same hand I've always had - oh but look! What is it holding? It's holding Steve's hand! Who is Steve? My three-dimensional boyfriend."

July has been compared to Emily Dickinson, and this is understandable - her abrupt and uncategorisable tangents convey the feelings of her characters better than any logical connective statement. In "The Swim Team", for example, the protagonist bumps into the boyfriend she wasn't sure she had broken up with, and he's accompanied by his new girlfriend. Her initial impression of all this is to muse that he seems incredibly far away from her - "like someone on the other side of a lake. A dot so small that it isn't male or female, young or old; it is just smiling."

Elsewhere, a lonely, short woman without "pizazz" witnesses her neighbour's epileptic fit with a wistful lethargy (she imagines that he is telling her he can see that she's perfect) that lulls her into sleep. Later, in the man's kitchen, she spots a photograph of a whale and suddenly, as if in a broken mirror, finds her feeling for his pain and her helplessness: "When a whale dies, it falls down through the ocean slowly, over the course of a day. All the other fish see it fall, like a giant statue, like a building, but slowly, slowly . . . I tried to reach down inside of it, toward the real whale, the dying whale, and I whispered, it's not your fault."

So Dickinson-esque maybe, but July writes more like Dickinson might have if she'd been born without protective skin and forced to demand tenderness. A sensibility of this kind can only dread other people at the same time as clinging to them. "Something That Needs Nothing" is a short story that explores the outer extremes of having to perform in order to be loved. The protagonist looks at her girlfriend and, in her fear, sees her anew: "For a split second I felt as though she was nobody special in the larger scheme of my life. She was just some girl who had tied me to her leg to help her sink when she jumped off the bridge." In another story, a woman does a spot of spring-cleaning in response to the anxiety of having to deal with someone else's life coming into contact with hers: "I do this before I bring someone new into my life; I try to get a sense of who I am so that I can make it easier for them to know me."

One of the greatest strengths of the collection is the way it picks up on those behaviours suggestive of emotional realms that are under-explored in us, the behaviours that make an individual feel weird and completely alone. Funny what can force someone out of silence: "The only reason I joined the conversation was that Elizabeth claimed you had to be able to breathe underwater to swim. That's not true, I yelled. These were the first words I'd spoken out loud in weeks. My heart was pounding like I was asking someone out on a date."

July has a proper understanding of the way that life's awkwardness and the disappointing nature of social interaction can force the mind back into a defensive repetition of the mantra "please no more". In the world of this book, people learn to swim on land, and it's not even intended as practice for swimming in water, it is an attempt to come together. People take classes in romance, also known as the art of making the space directly in front of your face beautifully misty and rosy. A couple learn that they can only bear each other when acting as extras, pretending for a camera and shaping soundless words of love. There are moments of "what?" galore, but the stories also act as a series of assertions that no matter what, other people are worth being around because there is meaning in their presence.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The Brown revolution begins