Lit Crit Gets Personal

Nonfictional Techniques tracked:
-Combining literary analysis with personal essay
-Developing a theme
-Characterizing through contrast
-Imagining reality

julydunham

Maura Roosevelt begins developing the theme of alienation in the title of her piece, “Stranger in a Freaky Land: Reading Miranda July in Los Angeles,” a play on the name of one of the most popular science fiction novels of all time, Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, in which a human who’s been raised on Mars returns to Earth. Roosevelt, if you can’t tell from her name, is an east coast transplant to whom the actions of Californians are foreign and often bizarre. Reading LA native Miranda July’s recent novel The First Bad Man (2015) helps her to interpret the (re)actions she witnesses around her and the implications of those (re)actions (i.e., the things she cannot witness directly). The narrative arc of the piece culminates in her coming to a decision based on her novel-mediated processing of these observations.

The narrator begins by describing the circumstances (marriage) that have brought her to LA from NYC, her running through her neighborhood there, where gates are ubiquitous (a concrete symbol of one of her themes, the division of public and private spheres), and the job she’s taken at a “structurally beautiful” elite private high school, where everyone tells her how much she’s going to like it, a stark contrast to the attitude evinced by her former NYC employers. She then jump cuts to a description of July’s novel, specifically how the reader gets to be let in on the secret that its protagonist “is weirder than she appears on the surface.” Roosevelt doesn’t engage in the literary analysis of a traditional book review—rather, she focuses on one particular aspect of the novel that’s important to the theme that’s important to the larger personal story she’s telling: that its characters don’t “intrude on one another’s affairs,” a habit that she contrasts with that of her own East Coast family. Here the narrator uses the tactic of describing a hypothetical situation:

After reading this scene I made my slow and uneventful morning commute down the 101 to the high school, and tried to picture a scenario where my own East Coast mother would encounter such a situation. My Boston-born mother is full of laughter, red hair, and angry ambition that all three of her daughters have inherited with pride. There is no imagined world where she’s not dragging me out by the collar and shoving me into the rumbling car right beside her.

The scene is fiction, but the characters in it are real. Hence, we have creative nonfiction.

While traditional literary analysis would eschew discussion of the author’s personality and would focus on the work, the next jump cut takes us to a scene in which the narrator sees July read from her novel. The behavior of the crowd provides the narrator another opportunity to contrast West Coast and East. Here in the West people are “noticeably absent of tense and competitive energy,” the opposite of how they are in Manhattan. The narrator describes July as funny and endearing, providing a quote from July that embodies her (Roosevelt’s) theme: July says her book, which has a black cover with pink pages, is dressed in drag, while the narrator muses that this metaphor is backward: a drag queen wears the pizazz on the outside, while the book with the pink pages has its “pizazz” hidden inside its black cover. This inside-outside relation mirrors the larger thematic public-private one. July, the Californian, has misrepresented something that actually embodies the private sphere as public. Like the physical book itself, the protagonist of the novel, a freak on the inside, embodies an inverted drag queen. The narrator believes if she can understand this protagonist, she might be able to understand the ethos of LA.

Next, Roosevelt continues drawing her dichotomy between East and West Coast, public and private, by contrasting the work of Miranda July to that of her friend, Lena Dunham, a New Yorker. Their books are “wildly different” not only in content (fiction vs. autobiographical nonfiction) but in style, specifically how honest they are. Characters in both books confront violence, but only in the East Coaster’s are the implications of this violence confronted directly. Here, again, Roosevelt paints a hypothetical situation with real players:

I imagine July reading Dunham’s book while slurping a smoothie in the sun, surrounded by potted cacti. She appreciates what her friend is doing on the page, and yet— she acknowledges before jumping into her late-morning mediation sesh— her own Californian soul would never be that forthright.

Now, after these two sections that have described July’s novel and July herself, we return to the personal narrative the narrator began in the first section, about working at the private high school. She wants to discuss “culturally significant” events (the Ferguson riots and UVA rape accusations) with her students, but after witnessing the other staff’s reactions to a diversity training the school held, she knows she “would be bringing them up alone.” The attitudes of the old white men that dominate the department are that “‘These problems simply don’t exist anymore.’”

The final section returns to the narrator running through neighborhoods, peering in windows, except now she imagines that in those houses are the obstinate white men from her department, that they are like July’s protagonist, secret freaks behind closed doors. She then writes an email to her boss at the high school, quitting her teaching job, and concludes the essay with her boss’s reply:

“…I won’t ask you to explain yourself. This is clearly your own private decision.”

Here the narrator is asked directly to participate in the Californian ethos of privacy that the school has been indirectly asking her to participate in. Her boss is, ironically, inviting her to remain private about the fact that the school’s attitudes about privacy have alienated her and driven her to quit.

The dichotomy the narrator sets up is relatively simple: the difference between East Coast and West Coast attitudes is that between being public and private. People often espouse how laid back West Coasters are, and complain about the rudeness of East Coasters. Roosevelt reveals the larger implications of these cultural attitudes. Forthright East Coasters are not private about themselves are often rude and grouchy, while private Californians are sunny and friendly—but this is a façade. West Coasters aren’t really more laid back, it would seem; they’re just hiding their true selves while New Yorkers are public about who they really are. While most of us would be inclined to like nice people over rude ones, Californians’ need to maintain a sunny façade (nicely embodied by the structurally beautiful private high school whose staff believes problems don’t exist anymore), means that problems will go unacknowledged, destroying the possibility for productive change. Reading July helps the narrator comprehend the existence of this systemic problem, leading her to her decision to quit, a meaningful step toward the change her colleagues refuse. California has not seduced this New Yorker into acting like everything is okay when it’s not.

-SCR

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