Miranda July’s novel The First Bad Man is weird. I definitely liked it, but it’s really weird. There’s not really a single normal character in the entirety of the book. But maybe it’s not that characters are so weird, but it’s that the characters are so open about their peculiarities. The world that July presents, much like the worlds that she presents in her acclaimed shorter works of fiction and her films, is one where people are shockingly willing to disclose the intimate details of their private lives.
The story takes place in Los Angeles and the reader is given the perspective of Cheryl Glickman, a forty year old woman who lives alone and works for a nonprofit. The nonprofit is called Open Palm, an organization that mostly makes self-defense fitness videos. Cheryl is infatuated with Phillip, a sixty year old board member of Open Palm; she believes that she and Phillip have been in love in all of their past lives. She starts to, in her words, “show him some heat,” and when he seemingly begins to reciprocate and confide in her, the reader would believe that the two’s romantic relationship is going to be the driving engine of the plot. However, Phillip reveals that the younger woman he’s been discussing with Cheryl as an object of his affections is not, in fact, Cheryl herself, but a sixteen year old girl. The projected plot arc rapidly changes, as Phillip is seeking Cheryl’s approval to consummate his relationship while Cheryl is essentially forced to take in her bosses’ daughter, a twenty year old named Clee.
One thing that works in a really cool way in this novel is narration. Cheryl is obviously whack, and you can’t help but assume that her narration is as unreliable as it comes. For me, reading the first hundred pages, I was mostly doubting what Cheryl was conveying, every moment felt like a figment of her imagination. I think that one way that this happens is that we only get Cheryl’s perspective and the rest of the world ceases to exist when she isn’t looking at them. That’s something that works really well in a lot of July’s shorter works, but is harder to buy into for nearly three hundred pages. However, another way of reading this is that the novel suggests that the way that we think about other people, colored by our own insecurities and quirks and fantasies, can be our highest level of perception. Yes, everyone as weird as you are; it’s just getting them to admit it. Cheryl is often right about people and situations, which is surprising considering how socially disconnected she seems.
As with all of July’s work, the characters and language are somehow deeply sad and incredibly funny at the same time. There’s a black humor to all of it, but an odd and unexpected one. For example, Cheryl reflects on her boss Carl calling her “practically family”:
“I pressed my lips together. Once Carl had called my ginjo which I thought meant “sister” until he told me it’s Japanese for a man, usually an elderly man, who lives in isolation while he keeps the fire burning for the whole village.”
The description has a Southern Gothic quality while describing a modern, slightly whimsical, west coast sort of story. It’s Californian Goth-ish. The novel is a decidedly Los Angeles story, with Cheryl’s forays in color therapy, crystals, reincarnation, and karmic relationship to certain babies she calls “Kubelko Bondy.” So California becomes grotesque; we see fragrant foot fungus, a fairly vivid depiction of a home birth, bodies and sex made disgusting, excrement in Chinese takeout containers, and Cheryl’s battle with globus hystericus, a psychosomatic condition that makes her feel as if she has a lump in her throat and prevents her from swallowing.
Throughout the story, July delves into the connectedness of familial, sexual, and romantic relationships. Explored foremost are the boundaries between maternal love and desire and how sexuality is ascribed to women entering the first and second and third stages of female obsolescence. The tensions between violence and delicacy are juxtaposed with the erotic. We get tenderness, we get the apparatus of family structure, we get a sense of inevitability that when the end of the novel comes, it could never end any other way. I didn’t mind the predictability of it, but if you’re in it for the plot, you might. I think the result is that the surprising style of writing loses some of its shock value in the constraints that arise from structuring a novel.
I loved this book, but I’ll admit that you have to fully commit to being in this weird weird world July creates. It’s a quick read, but it can be exhausting if you are going to question the laws that it operates by. To see if you want to handle it, I think I would check out some of July’s short stories first. I really like “Making Love in 2003” and “The Swim Team.” I’ve linked a few of them below.
Something That Needs Nothing in the New Yorker
The Boy from Lam Kien here
The Swim Team here