“The Exchanges” by Miranda July
2 December 2022 by Courtney Maum in Fiction
In The Exchanges, Miranda July’s first novel since her widely misunderstood debut, The First Bad Man, July chronicles the life of the cultural exchangee, Theo Schifrin, who is brought into the home of the middle class Zhao family in Shenzhen during the American fosterage craze currently blazing through mainland China.
The fictional “Greener Grass” cultural exchange program of which Theo is a part is a reflection of America’s failure to improve the economic lot of its underclass. Much like its sister and brother programs cropping up outside the United States, Greener Grass uses the euphemism of cultural exchange to mask de facto child emigration patterns. Most of these programs include a clause that allows the parents of U.S. exchange students to make their child’s overseas stay indefinite, allowing their offspring a “forever” life in the exciting new cities that have sprung up in the Far East, of which Shenzhen shines brightest.
The city boasts an airport that can handle sixty million visitors a year and a “The Window of the World” theme park that showcases, among other historical replicas, a minutely reconstructed version of the now defunct Cambodian temple, Angkor Wat, and a hikeable Matterhorn complete with fake snow and monthly avalanches. These titillations typify the unquenchable yearnings of the Zhaos themselves: a family of three whose adoption of a white American has them keeping up with — and then surpassing — the Chinese equivalent of the Joneses.
In hallucinatory Shenzen, Theo finds himself living in a simulacrum of an American life he never actually lived. His foster father is a receptionist at a therapeutic horse ranch where business executives drop two thousand dollars an hour to pick feces out of hooves. His foster mother runs a gourmet photoblog where she flaunts luxury purchases like pistachios and other comestibles endangered by the ongoing megadrought in the southwestern United States. In what is surely July’s tightest and most linear effort to date, we come of age alongside a young boy who no longer knows what age he’s in. Each of Theo’s attempts to find some kind of historical precedent for his feelings comes up short: this is a protagonist, somewhat like the young son in Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, who has no safe harbor for his sentiments; who is forced to live in a mirror maze where everything is reflected back at him so that he is perpetually — both physically and existentially — lost.
July’s keen and generous humor is used abundantly here — her descriptions of the artificial wonderland of Shenzen are an absolute delight. But what lurks under the shining surfaces is another of July’s trademarks: desperation and despair. Much like Theo’s experiences within the manufactured madness of Shenzen, our time within The Exchanges is a fraught reminder not of the happy newness we have to look forward to but of the bright things we have lost.
Sirens book reviewer Courtney Maum is the author of two novels and a collection of personal essays, I’ll Write About My Family Once My Parents Are Dead. The recipient of the Beauman International Prize for Comic Fiction, Courtney lives with her husband and three children in Mexico City.