Third-Degree Byrne

Andrew Hultkrans on Miranda July at the NYPL

New York

Left: Cindy Sherman with Performa director RoseLee Goldberg. Right: Miranda July. (All photos: David Velasco)

How to spruce up a reading when you’re a naïf artist with a book of stories, a film, performance pieces, and websites all topping the hipster charts? Why, invite two fellow naïf artists—one old, one young—to “gather together to create a feeling of belonging” at the New York Public Library. Sounds simple, right? And it is, if you’re Miranda July and you have the kind of fan base that gets warm fuzzies when you blush in public. As evinced by Dave Eggers, the Flaming Lips, the Polyphonic Spree, and countless other acts, there’s a great hunger for childlike wonder and optimism in America today, and its purveyors—embattled geeks as prophets of love—find themselves the focus of cultlike devotion. This is all very nice, and July is indeed as charmingly gawky in person as her stories and film, Me and You and Everyone We Know, would suggest. On Friday night, she read from her new story collection, No One Belongs Here More than You, was interviewed by David Byrne, presented her friend Becky Stark to a packed house in a prestigious venue, and, oh yes, attempted to “create a feeling of belonging” among the horny, agitated New Yorkers eager to kick off their Memorial Day weekend.

After running into a few friends and finding my seat, I opened my pores and nerve conduits as best I could as July took the stage in a casual black dress with a rather high slit revealing bright yellow tights. She is tall, slim, and wore a hair band to tame her eggbeater do. She futzed with a laptop, then told two stories about people she knew in childhood who happened to be in the audience. One was a man whom she had asked to a seventh-grade dance when he was a fifth-grader. This was embarrassing, apparently, and the man was asked to stand for all to see. Then, July told a story about a girl who thwarted one of her major adolescent crushes. She, too, was asked to stand, as July said, “And you’re probably a lesbian now!” Judging by her styling and companion, she probably was, and she nodded in the affirmative, bashfully. The audience found this charming. July had broken the performer-audience barrier, and I felt the belongingness taking hold. She then picked up her new story collection and read.

Left: Musician Becky Stark. Right: David Byrne with Paul Holdengraber, NYPL director of public programs.

The first story was an internal narrative about blowing off the award party of one’s life—at which all one’s family, friends, and admiring colleagues have gathered—to take a bath and read instead. Then she read a “racy” story because none of her family was in the audience. This one involved a dreamscape in a cramped, low-ceilinged horizontal world—something like the half-floor office in Being John Malkovich—in which everyone is having sex, unable as they are to stand up straight. At one point, a lost dog named Potato runs by in waking life, and the character feels guilty for not helping its owner find it. July does cute/silly/poignant really well, and she manages to get under my skin a little bit.

Having introduced her musical friend Becky Stark—of the band Lavender Diamond—and announced that her leg was asleep, July limped offstage to adoring applause. Stark was something else. Appearing in a Civil War–era dress with a classical guitar, Becky radiated the kind of honest idiot glee one associates with Bible-camp counselors and valium-laced 1970s children shows The Magic Garden and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. She proclaimed that “Becky Stark loves you very much,” then strummed and sang some delicate, big-eyed songs with lyrics like “Who has everything, who has nothing, and where did you come from?” and “Emptiness is a conductor, of heat, of anything.” Her high, warbly soprano and otherwordly bliss-out vibe suggested a conflation of Tiny Tim and Raffi. She got some of the audience to sing along, and I suddenly felt like a crabbed, curmudgeonly troll. Am I the only one who found this unbearably mawkish? I’ll never know. No one will cop to criticizing Stark without coming off as an unfeeling asshole. Let’s just say that it’s nice that Stark is out there operating in the world. She curtsied several times and left.

Left: Filmmaker Michel Gondry. Right: Miranda July.

Finally, David Byrne mounted the stage with July for the “interview.” Byrne has been great at many things over the years, but an actual talking head, it turns out, he is not. He played some clips from July’s film and recordings and made the most out of the name of July’s record label, Kill Rock Stars, by quipping, “I managed to avoid that pogrom, but it’s still going on.” Byrne’s interview “style” was to play a bunch of loosely related clips from the film and then ask, sort of, “So, what’s with the charts and graphs?” He really didn’t know what he was doing. At one point, July, perhaps sensing the awkwardness-to-belongingness ratio getting out of whack, said to him, “All your questions are like ‘What up?’” But it was clear that Byrne likes July’s work, and it was kind of sweet to see a postpunk rock god stripped of his familiar mastery. They bonded over a shared love of amateurs-as-performers, at which point July admitted that the two people in the audience she told stories about were planted before the reading. This seemed to break the belongingness contract a bit, and not just for me. It was not entirely clear that Miranda July fans expected to be lied to, however old the performance tactic. Nevertheless, it was all mutual fuzzies between Byrne and July, and they brought the conversation to an inconclusive close.

Stark returned and sang a countryish tune, Byrne on second guitar and harmony. It occurred to me that he may regard Stark as akin to the American eccentrics who populate his film True Stories, and, as with the tone of that film, it was hard to parse the balance between genuine admiration and arch condescension. Leaving the library into the warm spring night, I wrestled with a similar dynamic in my opinion of the event I had just witnessed. But with so many strangers smiling in my direction, I gave belongingness the benefit of the doubt.