The New York Times’ Sunday Book Review called The First Bad Man by Miranda July (2015), a “very funny debut novel.” I don’t tend to read book reviews before I start a new novel, since I don’t want it colored by other opinions. But knowing I would review July’s novel for this blog, I did a little research prior to starting it. I was surprised at how much I disagreed with the Times’ review. The First Bad Man can be funny in unexpected places, but I’d call it rather serious. It’s strange and unique, though not quite whimsical. The praise that covers the back of my copy is varied and full of words like “irreverent,” “piercing,” and “off-kilter.” None of these descriptors quite captures it. The novel opens with Cheryl, a woman in her mid-forties who lives alone and works for Open Palms, a non-profit women’s self-defense studio. You learn everything you need to know about her in the first few chapters.
- She suffers from Globus Hystericus, a psychosomatic lump in her throat which grows with stress, and keeps her from eating, drinking, or speaking.
- She is in love with Philip, a board member for Open Palms. Cheryl doesn’t just love him, she believes he is her soul mate. She believes in reincarnation and can remember the past lives they have shared. For some reason Philip, this incarnation around, seems not to know her.
- She has a psychic connection to certain children, whom she believes are all the same child, Kubelko. Cheryl believes that this child, this “soul,” is her child, but he keeps being born to the wrong people.
- She has a very strict order in her home, called The System. She doesn’t move any items unnecessarily. She cooks everything out of the same pan. This minimalistic lifestyle is a defense against depression. “After days and days alone it gets silky to the point where I can’t even feel myself anymore, it’s as if I don’t exist,” explains Cheryl.
The First Bad Man is not fantasy or some sort of magical realism. At no point did I actually believe in Cheryl’s memories of her past life as the queen of a snowy European country. Miranda July does not urge us to go along with these delusions, but they are so foundational to Cheryl’s life that they cannot be ignored. The entire novel is written from Cheryl’s perspective and she believes these things to be true. So in the context of the novel, it is all true. Cheryl is a single and childless women, who sees her husband and her son everywhere, but can’t reach them. What struck me about this novel was how easy it was to identify with Cheryl’s delusions. I think everyone has that little fantasy or obsessive thought that, if left to its own devices, could take over your life. No one in Cheryl’s life has ever confronted her about these obsessive thought patterns because no one in her life knows about them. These delusions of Cheryl’s form the plot of the novel.
It’s not until we are introduced to Clee that Cheryl’s fantasies become tangible in her life. Clee the daughter of the founders of Open Palms, college-aged and listless. When she needs someone to take her in, Cheryl is volunteered. Clee is unmotivated and dirty, ruining Cheryl’s perfect system. Only days after Clee moves in with Cheryl, Philip admits that he is considering having an affair with a teenage girl. And that’s when it gets weird. The concepts of man, woman, and child begin to mingle. Cheryl is a self-proclaimed feminist. She’s clean, tidy, and almost sexless in her efforts. She’s second wave and doesn’t it take for granted. But Clee takes advantage of the foundation of feminism that women like Cheryl tried to build. “‘I guess I’m a ‘misogynist’ or whatever'” says Clee. Cheryl thinks, “I’d never heard that word used like this, like an orientation.” Clee starts to harass Cheryl physically. Then Cheryl starts to fight back.
All of the characters in The First Bad Man take on different gender roles in different situations. Cheryl is the woman to Clee’s man in their fights. During this time she keeps receiving text updates from Philip about the progress of his affair with the young girl. Cheryl begins to fantasize about what it would be like to have the sexual power of a man (namely Philip). The masculine masks that the women in The First Bad Man take on are not a statement on gender fluidity. Instead the masculine attributes that Clee and Cheryl put on and shed periodically are how they fight back. Being a “man” is both Clee and Cheryl’s form of self-defense.
The novel is aware of the vulnerability that comes with being a woman and the different ways that women try to find strength. The middle of The First Bad Man is violent and sexual, but then it changes again. Cheryl has three people in her life, three pillars. Philip, the man. Clee, who plays the role of both man and child in Cheryl’s life. And Kubelko, the lost baby. In the last third of the novel he finally makes his way back into her life through a twist that was unexpected – even for such an unpredictable novel. The darkness of previous chapters was slowly replaced with the gentler themes of motherhood. “This can only end in heartbreak and I’ll never recover,” thinks Cheryl.
Somehow the uncomfortable sex and violence of The First Bad Man sits well with Cheryl’s heartbreaking desire to be loved and needed. If anything, her journey to love and motherhood makes an interesting juxtaposition that reminds us of where children come from, something we often seem to ignore. They come from sex. The First Bad Man is Miranda July’s first novel, but her resume as musician, actress, director, and writer (her short story collection came out in 2007) is long enough that I knew what I was getting to myself into. I bought my copy at Bluestocking, the Lower East Sides’ feminist bookstore, which is an appropriate place to buy a novel about womanhood. I’d been looking forward to reading July’s debut novel for a while and it definitely did not disappoint.
It’s not necessarily an easy book to read, but it is not scandalous either. Despite the graphic sex and violence I never felt like what I was reading was trying to be tantalizing for shock value. For those who don’t read for escapism or comfort, for anyone who wants to be a little challenged, The First Bad Man is a gorgeous read. George Saunders (author of Tenth of December) said, “July’s work reminds us that the essential storytelling tool is voice.” Cheryl sincerity and heartbreakingly pure motives allow The First Bad Man to explore the uncomfortable and unconventional without losing its humanity. It was one of those visceral and emotional novels that will stay will me for a long time.
Sarah V Diehl