With ‘All Fours,’ Miranda July Experiments in Fiction and in Life

It was not exactly urgent to get the rug, but the larger question the rug had to answer was urgent enough. That’s why, on a bright afternoon at the end of March, Miranda July and I were driving toward Irvine, Calif., where she planned to meet a man about a listing on Facebook Marketplace.

She had recently moved out of the large home she shared with her husband and child in Silver Lake and into a small two-bedroom house behind her writing studio in Echo Park. It meant she needed new things for a new place. A toilet, for example. A coral one, ideally, to match the tub and sink. Flooring for the kitchen. A refrigerator. And an antique carpet for the walk-in closet she was fixing up in her studio space. In this new life, would it all fit together?

Ms. July, a writer, filmmaker and artist whose work plays with the boundaries of intimacy, was wearing round tortoiseshell sunglasses, and her hair was pulled back in a velvet bow. We were just getting acquainted as she carefully merged on and off a series of highways in her blue Toyota Prius. Irvine was more than an hour away. There was going to be traffic — of course there would be traffic — and it began to dawn on us that this was going to be a long drive.

In such close quarters, Ms. July suggested we might define the terms of our relationship more clearly.

“What if you just said what the premise was of each thing you were entering into, and both people said their take on it?” she said. “Like even today, in the car. It could be like: ‘What’s your sense of this? Do you think we’re going to get hungry? What are our bodily concerns? Is there something you need to get back to?’

“There are a lot of basic things we could’ve discussed that actually may have made everything easier and clearer, you know?” she added, laughing. “We have yet to see what anxieties are to come!”

I felt my stomach flip, but she had a point. I was unbearably thirsty, for one. Suddenly, it seemed absurd we had left these things unsaid, and a relief someone had brought them up. Now we could really talk.

The characters in Ms. July’s films and books are often hoping for some kind of breakthrough. They go about their daily routines, longing for someone to say that unspoken thing. Maybe they’re on the brink of being truly understood.

In her new novel, “All Fours,” the unnamed female narrator — a 45-year-old “semifamous” artist who shares some biographical details with Ms. July — considers that a cross-country road trip from Los Angeles to New York could be a turning point in her life.

She doesn’t get very far. About 30 minutes in, she checks into a motel and spends the next two and a half weeks redecorating her room, taking up with a younger, married man and contemplating a totally different way of living. When she returns home to her family, she realizes she can’t quite reacclimate to the old domestic rhythms.

As she confronts what seems like the imminent death of pleasure, foretold by a graph about hormonal changes she finds online, she sees no choice but to strike out into new territory. Masturbation, fantasies of sex and plenty of actual sex help propel her onward.

The heroine of “All Fours” is not a woman in a midlife crisis, but — in the epic, Dante-esque sense — a woman in the “middle of her life,” Ms. July said. She found that little else had been written about this phase, particularly about perimenopause, the transitional time before full-fledged menopause.

The existential quandaries raised in the book — Can the world accommodate the idea of an ever-changing self? How do you reconcile your desires (sexual, creative and otherwise) with your circumstances? — are ones the author has been tangling with in her own life.

In an Instagram post a few summers ago, Ms. July announced that she and her husband, the filmmaker Mike Mills, were no longer in a romantic relationship, although they were still living together most of the time to parent their child, Hopper, who was 10 at the time.

“We feel good about this twisteroo in our long story and await further twists and turns over the course of our lives,” she wrote beneath a photo of her standing barefoot in front of three pairs of shoes. The next slide is a video of her dancing in her underwear to Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Got Your Money.”

The post, Ms. July said, had been “carefully worded.”

“Mike and I are public enough — just barely recognizable enough, to some very small sliver of the population — that one of us out with our girlfriends in New York could, to some people’s eyes, look like we’re cheating or something,” she said in the car.

Ms. July, who recently turned 50, is aware that readers may conflate the protagonist in “All Fours” with herself. The notion that her work is autobiographical has followed her since she wrote, directed and starred in “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” which won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes in 2005, when she was 31. And she sometimes inflects her characters with her own habits or ailments — like the passing throat condition she embellished and gave to the protagonist of her last novel, “The First Bad Man.” But she says she never intended them to be her avatars.

In the new book, she has borrowed a bit more from life. “The only way I can put it really is ‘closer to the bone,’” she said. “But it is still fiction.”

“All Fours” grew out of a story Ms. July published in The New Yorker in 2017, “The Metal Bowl.” It continued to take shape when she spoke to other women about how they were dealing with this stage in their lives.

“I remember driving and talking to Miranda about marriage, talking to her about sex,” said the writer Sheila Heti, a close friend of Ms. July’s who read an early draft of “All Fours.” “I remember feeling that she was trying to map the world through her conversations with people; she was interested in hidden desires, in the desires we can’t quite articulate to ourselves or are afraid to.”

Ms. July had similar conversations early in the pandemic with the sculptor Isabelle Albuquerque — to whom the novel is dedicated — sometimes on long walks, sometimes while they sat 10 feet apart in Ms. July’s backyard, “yelling across the void,” as Ms. Albuquerque put it.

“Sometimes it felt like we were trying to create a new society,” she said. “We were talking about the ideas but also trying to live them. Trying to make adjustments to our lives that would allow us to have a kind of freedom we both really crave.”

They conducted various experiments together. Living by their infradian rhythms, including their menstrual cycles. Spending one night a week at their studios, away from their partners. Ms. July kept that up for years. She had Wednesdays.

The challenge wasn’t to blow up your life. It was to set off tiny bombs all the time. Maybe no one even noticed but you. It could be as small as clenching your fist.

The entire world should probably be reorganized in a more feminist way, Ms. July said, but “the micro, everyday version is like, What can we do right now?”

Ms. July pulled into a parking lot of an affluent residential complex. In search of the rug merchant, we wandered past tennis courts and a pool.

Just as she called him on her phone, the man appeared. He introduced himself as Gino Gucciano and pointed down the street, toward a house around the corner.

He strode off, and we went back to the Prius.

“Are you ready for things to be maximum weird?” Ms. July said.

After the short drive from the parking lot to Mr. Gucciano’s house, we found that the garage door was open, revealing a vast collection of carpets. Standing beside a stack, Ms. July vetoed the one she had come to see, which was listed for $600. “Too brown.”

“If there are ones that had pinks. …” Ms. July said, taking a closer look.

Mr. Gucciano and a business partner, Sam Hossaini, unfurled several more on the floor of the garage. Some were too big, though Ms. July discovered she had not written down the measurements for the room in her studio where the rug would end up.

At last, they rolled out a deep rose Persian rug, laying it across the lawn in the sun. It was 150 years old, they said. The price was $2,600.

“So if I just Venmoed you $1,000 right now, that’s not going to cut it?” Ms. July asked.

“Unfortunately, no,” Mr. Gucciano said. “We paid more for it than that. It’s hard to get them that old.”

“At the thousand level for me, that’s — I have a whole home to figure out,” Ms. July said. “You know, I just got divorced. I have to quickly make a home.”

“Yeah, I went through that five years ago,” Mr. Gucciano said. “I lost a lot, and my home. But I have my kids, so I’m happy.”

“Oh, OK, yeah.”

“I want to make you happy, Miranda,” Mr. Gucciano said. “But we paid a little more than a thousand for it.”

Ms. July offered to tag them on Instagram, where she has been sporadically chronicling her sometimes comical efforts at home improvement in a highlight reel she calls “MJHGTV.”

Mr. Gucciano and Mr. Hossaini deliberated. They had just started an Instagram page for their business that very day. They knocked down the price to $1,300.

Ms. July began recording on her phone. She reviewed the pros and cons of the different rugs, until she turned to the pink one, the winner. The two men hauled it into the trunk of Prius.

“We have a lot to debrief,” Ms. July said, once she was behind the wheel again.

On the ride back to Echo Park, she admitted that she hadn’t meant to blurt out that she was divorced. It wasn’t quite true — she was in the middle of mediation.

“It’s a big piece of information, given how little information I’m giving about us,” she said. “And I actually think every divorce is different, and the reasons for doing it are very specific.”

In “All Fours,” the protagonist and her husband try out a new arrangement, which evolves throughout the novel. He is only one of the people she has sex with; and she never does consummate her emotional fling with the young man who sets off her quest.

Whether the marriage survives these evolutions is ambiguous. At the end of the book, the narrator is walking by herself, now awed rather than panicked by life’s curveballs.

“I really love where the book ends, because it’s fairly open-ended, and I actually still have that open-ended feeling,” Ms. July said. “And so I guess I hate to sort of take away from it.”

The next day, I visited Ms. July at her studio, which, together with her new home directly behind it, forms a sort of “compound,” she likes to say.

Her artist friend Nico B. Young was working in the garage, sawing a countertop and some shelving for Ms. July’s kitchen that he had designed himself. Almost every surface had been covered in a light yellow mixture of epoxy resin and pigment, making each cabinet resemble a perfect stick of butter.

A pair of 20-pound dumbbells lay just outside on the concrete, where Ms. July exercises with a trainer twice a week, beneath an orange tree in blossom.

She nimbly lifted the rug out of the car and into her studio, which is cluttered with hundreds of books, along with ephemera from her movies and other projects. In the main room is the long table where she writes, sitting on a hard wooden chair. Often when she works, she locks her phone in a box and unplugs the Wi-Fi. During breaks, she sometimes dances.

Down a hall is a bedroom where she now keeps much of her wardrobe of mainly vintage and thrifted clothes. She thought this might be the right place for the rug, giving the space a Parisian feel, maybe. But it was too big. It curled up against the wall, ever so slightly.

We tried sliding it around.

“Maybe if I got a rug pad, it would sort of rest on the edge,” Ms. July said.

We left the rug to settle and sat across from each other at her writing table.

Throughout “All Fours,” the protagonist is often grounded by her best friend, a sculptor named Jordi who, toward the end of the book, unveils a sculpture of a headless woman on her hands and knees. “Everyone thinks doggy style is so vulnerable,” Jordi says. But, she explains, the position is actually quite stable: “It’s hard to be knocked down when you’re on all fours.”

Ms. July told me she was excited to have women over to her new place for a party after her book tour, when things calm down. She wanted to spool a string of lights connecting the home she shares with Hopper and her work studio. The guests would float between the two.

“I’m kind of just looking forward to having time to just enjoy the world that I’ve made for myself,” she said. “A lot of steps along the way were hard and scary, and so it’s not that everything to come is going to be easy.”

“But now I’m not the person who has to write that book,” she said. “I’m the person who wrote it.”

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