Miranda July's 'All Fours' is a thrilling take on middle age : It's Been a Minute Our culture is full of stories about what it's like to be young: to find yourself, to fall in love, to leave home. But there aren't nearly as many scripts for what middle age might look like, especially for women. This week, host Brittany Luse is joined by author and filmmaker Miranda July, whose new novel 'All Fours' dives deep into the mystery and miracle of being a middle aged woman.

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The miracle of middle age with Miranda July

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BRITTANY LUSE, HOST:

Hello, hello. I'm Brittany Luse, and you're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR - a show about what's going on in culture and why it doesn't happen by accident.

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LUSE: Middle age can be a touchy subject. Like, Americans tend to get kind of doom and gloom when it comes to aging. And looking at our pop culture, getting older either totally sucks, or it's just an endless stream of jokes about receding hairlines, hot flashes and achy joints. I'm still a few years away from middle age, but I suspect - and I hope for myself - that real-life middle age is better than that. I want to know - where are the stories that show the transformations, the thrill, the opportunity? And especially, where are the stories about women in middle age? Because billions of women go through it, but I'm just not seeing it.

My next guest is here to correct that. She's taken the journey herself and has quite a few revelations to share. I'm talking to author and director Miranda July. You may know her from her books, her movies or her general artistry. Miranda's newest book, the one she's here to talk about, is called "All Fours," and it follows the story of one unnamed woman.

MIRANDA JULY: She's 45. She decides to go on a kind of vision quest road trip, driving from LA to New York, says goodbye to her husband and child, sets out and stops about 20 minutes from her house and checks into a motel and spends the three weeks that she's supposed to be in New York there. And when she goes home from this supposed road trip, she doesn't fit back into her life in the same way. And the rest of the book is what to do when that happens.

LUSE: With this book, Miranda's not handing out any kind of blueprint for middle age, but she does have some juicy thoughts on love, personal rebirth and staring down the second half of life.

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LUSE: Miranda, welcome to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE.

JULY: So glad to be here, Brittany.

LUSE: Oh, I'm glad to have you. So we're here to talk about your new book, "All Fours." And a lot of the book is reckoning with a cultural lack of imagination around women in the middle of their lives. And...

JULY: Yeah.

LUSE: ...Our society has so much imagination for what being young looks like. And you even say that youth is so heavily marketed to us to the point that some of us end up disappointed by our youths not looking the way we're told they would.

JULY: Right.

LUSE: But after a woman gets married and has kids, it seems like, in a cultural sense, nothing else will happen to her.

JULY: Yeah, that's kind of the end of the story, right? Like, there, you did it.

LUSE: Yeah.

JULY: You're - good job.

LUSE: Yeah.

JULY: You're done.

LUSE: It's like, you checked all the...

JULY: Yeah.

LUSE: ...Boxes, and you're done. And it's like, the next steps are maybe retirement...

JULY: Right.

LUSE: ...Or grandparenthood or death. I wonder if youth is almost too heavily storied.

JULY: Right.

LUSE: What kind of guidance were you hoping for for middle age?

JULY: Right. As you said, like, the road ahead just seemed to drop off like a cliff. Not only was I having trouble finding, like, basic medical facts about my changing body, all the aspirational imagery, yeah, in stories, they just stopped as if what was coming was just too humiliating to even talk about.

But meanwhile, among my friends, there was this kind of feverish whisper network about our bodies and our marriages and our desires. And that was complex and exciting. Everyone was questioning everything. The stakes felt so high, but I knew I wasn't alone. Like you were saying, as you might feel disappointed - like, I don't have all the things I'm supposed to have - the life going forward might actually be so undescribed that it's kind of a miracle.

LUSE: Mmm. That's such an interesting way to think about it - like, a miracle - like, faith in things not seen. Instead of thinking about it as this cliff where you don't know where the bottom is, considering it as something of a miracle is a really, really, really chewy idea. I was really interested in how the narrator explored new rules for her heterosexual marriage. You talked in another interview about how changing the rules of a marriage is like painting over the Mona Lisa. And I felt that risk and immediacy there in the book. Talk to me about that.

JULY: Yeah. I mean, both the thrilling part of painting over the Mona Lisa - like, oh, my God, I can't believe I can do this, and, like, OK, the police are about to come.

LUSE: (Laughter).

JULY: Like, I'm definitely in trouble. I kind of made up my whole career, but I didn't think, like, what actually for the specific person that I am would make sense here for this marriage, given that, like, you sign the thing, but they're not, like, watching you the whole time.

LUSE: (Laughter).

JULY: But you kind of act like they are. You know, like, oh, no, we'll definitely sleep in the same bed in the same house forever because I don't know actually why.

LUSE: The marriage police will come, and they're going to check and...

JULY: It's like child protective services but for wives.

(LAUGHTER)

JULY: And I think there were rules and laws until pretty recently, and that's still in our body. You know, so that does actually limit your imagination even if you and your partner may very well be able to handle and enjoy and benefit from those risks.

LUSE: One of the other things I've been thinking about that really struck me in the book is reckoning with how people literally see you or look at you or behold you. I am maybe, like, nine years younger than the character in the book who's 45, but I remember realizing shortly after I got married two years ago - is that the pageant portion of my life...

JULY: Right.

LUSE: ...Had come to an end. And that was strange, but it was also really exhilarating. I'm like, oh, well, what will I wear now that...

JULY: Right.

LUSE: ...I'm not building up to (laughter) this beauty queen moment?

JULY: Yeah. That's such a good way to put it - like, yeah, the official pageants are over, which I guess is to say that there's nothing useful that your looks can be applied to as far as, like, the patriarchy is concerned.

LUSE: (Laughter).

JULY: Like, we - your work here is done. And yet, I mean, depending on how well you aligned with those pageants in the first place, you're right. It might be a relief, or you might discover the part of yourself that was inventing those pageants and could continue to. You know what I mean?

LUSE: Hmm. On the topic of keeping things the same and change, there's a quote I really, really liked where the main character is describing a way in which, you know, she's not keen to change. And she said, like - I also don't love getting in pools, by the way - Sunday nights, packing for trips, any transition, whatever state I'm in, I just want to stay in it, if that's not too much to ask. I wonder, can you talk more about that theme of becoming new?

JULY: Right. I mean, in that quote, she's kind of explaining her problem with sex because, once you're doing it, it's fine. But it's the transition from not doing it to doing it that's so hard. And this book takes place in a transitional time. I mean, quite literally, like, perimenopause is a big, huge biological time of transition.

If you think of puberty, we know that biological things are happening, but we never just think of those things. We think romance - like, every song on the radio, in some ways, is about that time or about this certain kind of love. And I remember thinking, oh, every love story is a hormone story. And so, what is the love story for this time of transition? What is this hormone story of perimenopause? And to know that, you don't just need to know the facts from your doctor, which would be nice. We would appreciate that.

But also, what is the story? In what way are you supposed to fall in love during this time, you know? And I mean that in the broadest sense because it's a wild time. Some part of yourself is going to come out that has perhaps been starved before. And this moment when all your hormones are in transition - I do believe, like, if we're going to come up with a mythology, you're meant now to be sort of jumbled around enough inside that that blind spot comes forward, and it's hungry. I mean, I think it's a very human desire to want to kind of get set - like, OK, this part is set. Even men - there's no mythology for them either about why the women in their life are changing.

LUSE: Hmm, hmm, hmm. You know, there's the topic of change and rebirth, but then there's also the topic of actual birth. And without giving too much away, like, the main character had a traumatic birthing experience, and that's something that she grapples with. But she really seems to keep that pain to herself. It felt to me as a reader like she was so imaginative in her work and in her relationships, but she struggled to imagine a version of her life where that wound could be fully acknowledged. I wonder - what do you think made that so unimaginable?

JULY: Yeah. I mean, talk about specificity - like, trauma is so specific and what happened to you. Like, the dream is meeting someone who that exact same thing happened to, and then that person can say the right things finally, you know? I mean, in this book, she gets the mirror. And I think we can do that in art. We can actually have the catharsis.

When I was writing that scene, I remember being annoyed that I could barely see the screen 'cause of the tears, you know? And I was like, I can only write this once. Like a real experience, this will only happen once - me writing it. And I put it off and put it off, and then it happened, and I've felt different since then. I think, when you're dealing with trauma, it's not just imagination. It's like a story you're holding in your cells. It's not comfortable.

LUSE: Hmm, hmm, hmm. That makes me think about something else that seems to come up in your work a lot. Intimacy - you know, what it means to be fully understood by others, whether that's lovers, strangers. You said in another interview that there'd be no satisfaction in being understood if the thing you were understanding was a given. And I see that in this book. I mean, half of it is the narrator being so down bad for the object of their affection, but I also feel like she's learning how to create that understanding with herself...

JULY: Yeah.

LUSE: ...Too.

JULY: I thought I knew what this book was about. I mean, I wanted to write a book about aging and about, you know, what that's like for a woman. And when I got to the very end, I was like, oh, it's about intimacy - ultimately, intimacy with yourself. I wasn't mature enough at 45 when I started to know that that was a satisfying goal, you know? Like, I was like, no, I want intimacy with someone else, you know? I want to be seen through and through. And I feel like this narrator - by the end of the book, that is now a possibility.

LUSE: Hmm, hmm. For this book, you talked to loads of people - middle-aged women, women who have been middle-aged, and you also talked to doctors and researchers about menopause. Were there any particular ideas that felt really sticky to you around how you could reimagine middle age - like, anything that anybody said to you that kind of launched you into a certain direction or certain path?

JULY: Well, it was always interesting, and it was never just depressing or - you know, 'cause you're kind of worried when you, like, get on the phone to do an interview about perimenopause and menopause with, like, let's say, a woman in her 60s or 70s. And I was just so struck by the riches I was getting. Like, I started to feel like I was sitting on this gold mine, and I just wanted everyone to know, like, this is all really weird and alive. Not to say it's easy, but then there isn't really an easy part of life, right? The thing that makes it easy is these conversations - easier.

It was kind of like some monster evaporated through knowledge, and in its place was just this kind of high feeling. I remember one woman described to me some, like, sad things about aging. And I nervously said, how bad is it? Is it unendurable? Like, what level are we talking about? And she said, you know, I'm here for the body experience. Like, I'm here. I've incarnated into this body for the body experience...

LUSE: Ooh.

JULY: ...And part of that is loss. And so I want it all. That's it, basically - I want it all.

LUSE: Wow. Wow.

JULY: And the way she said it was just so true. I was like, right, I'm here for the body experience also.

LUSE: The body experience. Ooh, that's a good one.

JULY: And that's desire, and that's lust. But that's also loss. And I realized, like, oh, the loss is mine too. Like, I get to write with that. I get to love with it in my relationships. Like, it's not, like, a dead, empty, embarrassing thing. It's alive, too. It's power, too.

LUSE: Hmm, hmm. Well, Miranda, I really appreciate this conversation.

JULY: Me, too. Thank you.

LUSE: That was author Miranda July. Her new book, "All Fours," is out now.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hey, Brittany.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hey, Brittany.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Hey, Brittany.

ALEXIS WILLIAMS, BYLINE: Hi, Brittany. This is your producer, Alexis. Last week, we asked people for their thoughts on what it's like to be middle-aged, and we have a few submissions. The first came via email from Robert Baumans (ph). He writes...

(Reading) Growing up, I was one of those people who, no matter what, looked years younger than they actually were. I would tell myself nonstop I can't wait to turn 50 years old. I was just so tired of looking so young and never really saw myself as an adult. I finally reached middle age, and my inner self and spirit now had balance and a new outlook on being an actual - what I call an adult. I've been living the good life for the last five years, and I'll be turning 56 in October. And every single day, I am at peace. I am finally able to look in the mirror and see me - the person I've been waiting to meet since I was 15 years old.

LUSE: Oh, my gosh. That is so deep.

A WILLIAMS: That was Robert's email, and here are two more that came in that I think you'll really like.

JO: Hey, Brittany. This is Jo (ph) from Seattle area. So I'm 46, and the way I feel right now is that I have been on one long, arduous hike up to the crest of a mountain. And now I'm looking down on the other side, and I still have more journey to go, but it's kind of, like, the hard part is done. Like, I think everything I've experienced along the way will help me down into the valley. But it's still scary, and it's still an adventure.

SANDRA: Hey, Brittany, this is Sandra (ph) in Michigan. And I just turned 50, so I'm literally as middle-aged as you can get. Being middle-aged is really pretty great. I love knowing exactly who I am and living unapologetically, doing what I like. I love having more money than I did when I was much younger. I love my kid being grown up and taking care of himself. Love being able to walk down the street and not worry about some guy harassing me and also being old enough to not care that no guy wants to harass me. Things I don't like about being middle-aged - I don't like that everything hurts, and I don't like that I don't have the energy that I did when I was 30. And I don't like that it took me 10 minutes to figure out how to use the voice recorder on my phone.

LUSE: Jo, Sandra, Robert, I cannot thank you enough for sharing these really cool, deeply interesting and juicy reflections about being in the middle part of life. I'm going to say, first of all, Sandra, happy birthday. And the way that you describe your life right now - you're like, wow. You got a little spending money in your pocket. You walk down the street with confidence. You're not changing diapers (laughter). I mean, it really sounds like you're living the life.

And Jo, I love this metaphor that you used about life being one long, arduous hike. I think that's such a great way to put it because, when you're hiking, you're dealing with the altitude, you're dealing with uneven ground. But you also get to have this incredibly beautiful experience in nature.

And Robert, there's this idea that you find yourself when you're, like, 18 or 25 or something like that. But the idea that you could really be meeting your truest self for the first time and beginning that relationship at 50 is just so thrilling and such a beautiful way to think about aging.

You know, I've still got a couple of more years, but I have been feeling an increasing amount of excitement at getting toward the next phase of my life. There's definitely more to do. There's more to see. But the hard part - the learning the lessons the hard way (laughter) - I could definitely see a way in which that's kind of behind you, and I think that's so cool. So thank you again for reaching out and sharing your brilliance with me and all of our listeners, and I hope you are each enjoying a wonderful weekend.

Now, if you want to be heard on an upcoming Hey, Brittany, I have a question for you. We've all heard of superhero fatigue and sequel fatigue, but I want to hear from you. What IP do you think has overstayed its welcome? Is it Marvel, "Star Wars"? What IP do you think needs to exit stage left and why? Send us a voice memo at ibam@npr.org. That's ibam@npr.org.

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LUSE: This episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE was produced by...

COREY ANTONIO ROSE, BYLINE: Corey Antonio Rose.

A WILLIAMS: Alexis Williams.

LUSE: This episode was edited by...

JESSICA PLACZEK, BYLINE: Jessica Placzek.

LUSE: Engineering support came from...

TIFFANY VERA CASTRO, BYLINE: Tiffany Vera Castro.

LUSE: Our executive producer is...

VERALYN WILLIAMS, BYLINE: Veralyn Williams.

LUSE: Our VP of programming is...

YOLANDA SANGWENI, BYLINE: Yolanda Sangweni.

LUSE: All right, that's all for this episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Brittany Luse. Talk soon.

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