This review originally appeared on The Newtown Review of Books.
Critics of writer, filmmaker and artist Miranda July’s work might swiftly dismiss The First Bad Man, her first novel, as another glib narrative filled with quirky characters who do implausible things. While there is no shortage of eccentricity – this is a world in which psychologists pee in Chinese takeaway containers to avoid convoluted trips to the bathroom and in which sexagenarian board members evangelise about chromotherapists who prescribe the essence of white, whatever that means, as tinea treatment – to scorn the novel as lightweight would be to overlook its exploration of the universal yen for human connection.
The novel’s protagonist is 43-year-old Cheryl Glickman, who, for going on three decades, has been an employee of Open Palm, a Californian self-defence non-profit. She has a mystic connection with a baby she’s named Kubelko Bondy, whose consciousness is ‘hosted’ by other infants, and who is the only person she feels a ‘real and permanent’ bond with. She searches him out in other children and even in pregnant women – not all babies are Kubelko, she informs us – and they mentally converse whenever she finds him.
Cheryl suffers from a psychosomatic throat constriction, lives alone and has a particular ‘system’ of organisation that gives her a ‘smoother living experience’. All of us from time to time put off doing the dishes or the washing: indolence with respect to household chores is by no means uncommon. Which is where Cheryl’s system, energy-saving to the point of absurd hilarity, comes in. To prevent descent into squalor, Cheryl suggests eating directly out of the cooking pan on a hot pad instead of from dinner plates, which just get dirty and pile up. ‘Does the pan need to be washed? Not if you only eat savory things out of it.’ She advocates thinking twice before moving an object from its usual spot; reading a book is best done standing next to the shelf, or better still, not at all. When the system works well, ‘it gets silky to the point where I can’t even feel myself anymore, as if I don’t exist’.
Cheryl’s well-ordered and quiet life is upended when she is pushed into allowing Clee, the 20-year-old daughter of her Open Palm bosses, to move in with her. Clee, who is beautiful if grubby, spends most of her time watching TV, drinking giant bottles of Diet Pepsi, eating frozen meals and bullying Cheryl. Clee’s truculence develops into a Fight Club-esque game of physical confrontations between the two women. Cheryl finds it both painful and therapeutic: after each scuffle, the sensation of the lump in her throat miraculously disappears. These sessions evolve into role-plays of Open Palm self-defence scenarios, which to Cheryl become increasingly erotic. She subsequently experiences out-of-body fantasies in which she inhabits the ‘stiff members’ of numerous men and ravishes Clee.
The First Bad Man’s exploration of desire typifies July’s fascination with sex and what it entails: ‘shame and humiliation and fantasies and longing’, as she said in a 2011 New York Times interview. It is a common theme in her work: in her first feature film, Me and You and Everyone We Know, sexual transgression is perpetrated by two teenage girls who fellate their middle-aged neighbour for practice; ‘Something That Needs Nothing’, a story that appeared in July’s popular 2007 collection No One Belongs Here More Than You, is narrated by a young lesbian who sexually services an older woman and works as a peep-show performer for rent money.
Cheryl’s displacement of her desires into the bodies of other men reflects her own disconnectedness from her sexuality, later resolved by her coming out. Genuine connection proves largely elusive in the novel: July’s characters pursue relationships that too often turn out to be fleeting, unstable and unfulfilling. Adult relations are off-kilter and often sadistic: there is the 65-year-old board member who seeks Cheryl’s permission to consummate a relationship with a teenager via blow-by-blow text message updates (pun intended); or the psychologist who plays a submissive role in ‘an immensely satisfying adult game’ that ultimately leaves her bereft. At one point, Cheryl muses:
What was the lifespan of these improbable loves? An hour. A week. A few months at best. The end was a natural thing, like the seasons, like getting older, fruit turning. That was the saddest part – there was no one to blame and no way to reverse it.
The exception is Cheryl’s bond with Kubelko, the novel’s only stable one, which forms the basis of another maternal connection. The last quarter of the novel focuses sharply on the minutiae of motherhood and seems to have been influenced by July’s own experiences (she submitted the manuscript to her publishers when she was pregnant with her son Hopper, now three). Everything, from the stages of embryonic development to meeting milestones, to breast pumping, is covered. Couched in the prosaic details of Cheryl’s day-to-day role as a single mother is a striking rendering of maternity, an experience both ordinary and indescribably extraordinary. It is here that the novel shines: with the breathlessness and heartbreak relationships can bring, with the promise of growth and the future, and with the tenderness and empowerment of a mother’s love.
An artist in many mediums, July has recently said that what comforts her most about the book is ‘to know that the next thing I’m going to do is completely different’. The First Bad Man, like much of July’s work, feels singular and truly original. Layered beneath character quirks and fighting games and sexual fantasies is an unabashedly honest representation of connection and longing. Here’s hoping for more of the same.
The First Bad Man
by Miranda July