I drove to the doctor’s office as if I was starring in a movie Phillip was watching- windows down, hair blowing, just one hand on the wheel. When I stopped at red lights, I kept my eyes mysteriously forward. Who is she? people might have been wondering. Who is that middle-aged woman in the blue Honda? I strolled through the parking garage and into the elevator, pressing 12 with a casual, fun-loving finger. The kind of finger that was up for anything.
Meet Cheryl Glickman, the funny, pitifully naive heroine of Miranda July’s debut novel The First Bad Man. July is a seasoned director, screenwriter, artist, and short story author. Traits synonymous with short fiction and July’s experience as a visual artist drive the novel’s wacky characters and plot. She disposes of the expected with side-splitting narrative and an ever escalating plot, but some prefer this style remain in the confines of a short story, garnering this full length novel mixed reviews from brilliant to absurdist.
As the novel begins, Cheryl drives to a ‘chromologist’ to treat a ‘globus’ which has made it hard for her to cry, eat, or swallow much of anything – she’s forced to carry a spittoon for parts of the story. Essentially the globus is symbolic of the constraints in which she lives manifesting itself as a tight ball in her throat; the globus acts as a tool to gradually submerge us into peculiar and hilarious happenings in the author’s crafted world.
Cheryl manages a self-defense training center that recycles its old videos as fitness DVDs; ironic since she is walked over in most aspects of her life. She is in love with her seventy year old colleague, Phillip, who she’s sure has been her lover through many lifetimes. When she suspects he’s finally coming around to her advances he reveals that he is actually in love with a teenage girl – but will not consummate the relationship without Cheryl’s approval (which leads to a series of detailed texts of over the trouser rubbing and whether oral sex falls under the umbrella of ‘real sex’). Cheryl also has a deep bond with a spirit she calls Kubelko Bondy that manifests himself in other women’s babies. She tries to live efficiently; eating meals right out of the pot it was prepared in, reading right next to the bookshelf so she doesn’t have to travel far to return the book to its place until “days become dreamlike, no edges anywhere, none of the snags and snafus that life is so famous for”.
But the smooth edges of Cheryl’s life are ruffled when her bosses pawn their nineteen year old daughter, Clee, on her. Clee is spoiled with terrible foot odor, and Cheryl says “so much a woman that for a moment I wasn’t sure what I was”. Soon after Clee sets up camp on the living room sofa and piles dishes in the sink, things turn physically violent. The two women take to a Fight Club style of living, at first they beat each other viciously and then it turns into an “adult game”. They imitate Cheryl’s self-defense DVDs, acting as predator and victim, pulling moves and lines straight from the videos. This violence let’s something go in Cheryl and she begins to change, turning Phillip’s heartbreaking romance on it’s head, dreaming up her own sexual fantasies that are hilariously drawn from Phillip’s texts. Things continue to escalate in this fashion.
July wrote, directed, and starred in Me and You and Everyone We Know — winner of the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and a Special Jury Prize at Sundance, and wrote the bestselling short story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You, and it is no wonder why she has received accolades for her visual art as well as her short fiction pieces. July connects written story with the visual world readers build in their minds; there is no point where you do not have a solid sense of place among not-so-familiar occurrences in their world, which is good when so much of the plot is removed from reality.
Although The First Bad Man has many unpredictable twists and turns, observant readers will discern the basic path of Cheryl’s story, bringing the story to one obvious but satisfying conclusion. This predictability is a positive – getting to that clear ending is only possible through a gambit of unanticipated events taking us through the actions of funny, unlikable, strange, and motivated characters. If you enjoy outlandish situations, belly laughs and fluid writing over sometimes empty ‘edge of your seat’ element, you will appreciate this read.
I’m curious, has any one else read this book? Tell me what you thought of it! Are you planning on reading it? What do you think of Miranda July’s writing style?