Getting Divorced With Miranda July

Her new novel All Fours is perfect fodder for Transformation Brain.

by Rebecca Ackermann

The painter’s wife was in the hospital, so I waited two weeks before telling him I had to find someone else to color-drench my bedroom. I felt bad, but not too bad: I half-assumed he was lying to get out of my divorce redecoration.

Whenever I tell a woman I’m getting divorced, she smiles and welcomes me into the secret club for souls brave enough to shed ill-fitting lives. This is especially true with older women, like my silver-bobbed optometrist or the upbeat financial advisor I hired to help me stay afloat. The painter, however — a wife guy who looked around my age — stared at me in horror for three seconds longer than was kind. This was what led me to suspect that maybe his wife wasn’t injured at all. Maybe he was feigning domestic obligation to escape the contagion of my domestic disaster. Or maybe I was spending too much time alone, thinking about myself.

A symptom of transformation is obsession: with yourself, with Meaning, with other people who look like Meaning. In All Fours, a funny and deliciously indulgent novel about changing course in midlife as an artist, wife, and mother, Miranda July writes with knowing depth about this kind of spiraling figurative masturbation. (She also writes about the literal kind.)

The narrator in All Fours sees Meaning everywhere. In particular, signs call to her at a nothing gas station in Monrovia, half an hour from her beautiful life and home in LA. The narrator is a 45-year-old semi-famous Miranda July-type staring down a meeting with a potential collaborator whose fame and freedom shimmer like a lighthouse in the black night of her writer’s block. She’s supposed to be going on an inspirational cross-country road trip — sanctioned by her golden retriever husband, a fact that both comforts and irks her. The trip is supposed to take her away from the drudgery of school pick-ups and monosyllabic kitchen exchanges and carry her closer to her old creative self. Only, she feels weighted by those new “supposed tos” when she’s itching for wants. Leaving is expected, staying home is untenable, the resourceful narrator finds a secret third thing: Monrovia.

Is it full of Meaning that now we’re both waiting for our divorce paperwork to clear? That our children are roughly the same age? That her novel about navigating this moment arrived just when I needed it?

At that nothing gas station, the narrator encounters Davey, a 31-year-old local who presents as a very hot and straightforward canvas for projection. When she sets up camp at a nearby nothing motel to stay close to him, a second canvas appears: her room. The narrator, obsessed with Davey and her own transgressive decision to lie to her family about her whereabouts, is seized with the desire to redecorate.

Here is the sickness of transformation brain: I want to tell you that I spoke to July on the phone nearly two decades ago at my first job at a tiny magazine, when I still believed I could live a financially sustainable creative life on my own. On the verge of indie stardom for her first film, Me and You and Everyone We Know, July was far nicer to a baby writer than she had to be. Is it full of Meaning that now we’re both waiting for our divorce paperwork to clear? That our children are roughly the same age? That her novel about navigating this moment arrived just when I needed it? Well, it’s certainly not meaningful to her.

When my husband and I separated in the fall, my body began to vibrate with the urge to run. I was desperate to drive thousands of miles away and start again. But throwing it all away sounded less appealing when I had to figure out health insurance and my 8-year-old started sucking her thumb again. Not to mention, leaving would be illegal if I wanted any custody. Plus, I was lucky to get to keep the house. (I told the painter that I knew I was lucky, so at least he would see I was grateful and self-aware and perhaps not fully to blame for rejecting the rest of my life.) I couldn’t really go, but the house felt haunted, both too familiar and too foreign, too lonely and too full of obligation. It belonged to that life of monosyllabic kitchen exchanges; it wasn’t exactly me anymore. Was it ever? Like July’s narrator, I couldn’t write inside of that place. Like her, I decided to redecorate.

“Each person does the amount of lying that’s right for them,” July’s narrator explains in All Fours. “For me, lying created just the right amount of problems and what you saw was just one of my four or five faces — each real, each with different needs. The only dangerous lie was the one that asked me to compress myself down into a single convenient entity that one person could understand.”

The narrator can wear all her faces in that motel room in Monrovia. She unspools to her best friend Jordi on the phone, and then doubts that Jordi could ever truly understand. She calls her 7-year-old child and delights in the details of their day — but allows herself to forget they exist soon after. She lies on the bed beside Davey and feels both the strength of her desire and the electricity of his — and then hires his wife to fulfill her decorating dreams. (The wife is a professional; the narrator has a great eye, a gift for lying about her motives, and $20,000 to spare.) The narrator picks patterns, arranges artwork, takes naps, eats trail mix in bed. She masturbates, a lot. She can’t imagine getting to have all this excess anywhere else. Her husband has never even seen her fifth face, and the narrator wonders if anyone but she herself could bear to witness it. What would her family think of the stunning extravagance of her refurbished motel room? Would they recognize it as hers? Her as theirs anymore?

Desire is the secret third thing we’re all looking for, and it’s not a place we’re supposed to arrive at.

But time runs out. The narrator’s family expects her back from her “road trip” on schedule, and she says goodbye to the in-between she’s built. The otherworldly motel room remains behind. And despite increasing its value tenfold, the narrator has to pay for her stay.

(July’s novel is unspoilable in the way that any truly pleasurable experience can’t be ruined by description. However, if you care about plot points, our time together has run out, too.)

Once home, the narrator wrestles with her mortality before charting a quick path to what my clever friend calls “the Gen Z marriage plot”: polyamory. After almost 200 pages of expansive exploration into the kaleidoscopic possibilities of a life only half-lived, July serves us a having-it-all happy ending. The family home becomes a Mary Poppins carpet bag of domestic bliss, magically spacious enough to contain family, partnership, creativity, and even desire for everyone with no messy cleanup. The Monrovia motel room, so carefully decorated and thoroughly enjoyed by the narrator’s full self, is enshrined as a monument to a moment past. When the narrator finally arranges that long-awaited meeting with the more-famous artist in Monrovia to show off her efforts, she can’t even book her own room.

I read in a profile that July and her real-life partner are no longer cohabitating, romantically or otherwise. Now she’s getting divorced like me. She’s in our club. Transformation brain wants to know if she’d write a different ending for All Fours today — less tidy, less healthy and whole. Transformation brain thinks she might actually read this and tell me.

“Any calling no matter what kind is an unsolveable ache,” July’s narrator muses. She’s talking about art, but the author has similar words for mothering (“there was no way to consummate the love of your child”) and sexual longing (“maybe Davey is supposed to be a chimera”). I suspect that July knew then and knows now that wanting is where the action of life is. Meaning doesn’t reside in objects of longing — Davey, a certain level of fame, a stable home life, the girlfriends the narrator seeks out at the end of the novel. Desire is the secret third thing we’re all looking for, and it’s not a place we’re supposed to arrive at.

My bedroom still isn’t painted. I’ve switched out the doorknobs and outlets, and tried new furniture arrangements. (I have a decent eye and less than $20,000 to spare.) I’ve called a new painter for a quote; this time, I didn’t tell him why I needed the change. My room is no consummate monument. In fact, it’s come completely undone. Half the week, my child jumps into bed for snuggles. The other half I try to forget those kinds of mornings. I sleep, eat, want and, finally, write in here. The room’s a mess, and so am I. But at least I’m never going home.

Rebecca Ackermann is a writer and designer living in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in MIT Tech Review, Esquire, Vox, and elsewhere.