Review: The First Bad Man by Miranda July

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photo: Goodreads

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?

 

Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

everythinginevertoldyouLydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.

If you have heard anything about Celeste Ng’s (that’s pronounces “ing” her twitter and website will have you know!) debut novel Everything I Never Told You this first line is probably it. It’s plastered all over synopsis’ and reviews because Creative Writing 101 tells us the first line of a story is what will attract (or distract) a reader. Seeing Celeste Ng obviously had a good understanding of this I knew I was in for a good time. I picked up a copy from my mum’s bookshelf and quickly read a few paragraphs before pocketing it. My mum now supervises my visits to her study, with good reason.

Everything I Never Told You is about the Lees, a mixed Chinese and Caucasian family living in Ohio in the 1970s. When sixteen year old Lydia Lee disappears and is found drowned a day later, her parents Marilyn and James, older brother Nath, and younger sister Hannah go through the motions as an investigation starts and the events leading up to Lydia’s death are picked through with a fine tooth comb, forcing them to question how well they really knew Lydia. It’s not long before we find that Lydia was an integral part of the family which, without her, starts to fall apart at the seams like a cheap dress coat. The plot goes back and forth in time, through Marilyn and James’ early relationship and marriage, Lydia’s dealings with her school mates and few friends, all revealing secrets long the way. Perspective is switched from one family member to another which adds a closeness to each of their stories, including Lydia. At first this reads like a mystery or thriller but as the story unravels a majority of the focus falls firmly on each family member’s memory of Lydia and what they believe were the events leading to her death, rather than how she died or who is responsible.

As the title suggests, this novel focuses on things left unsaid and the repercussions that linger because of it, which was the main reason I was pulled through the book. I was curious who would find out about someone else’s dirty business, curious who would be left in the dark, curious about what was being left unsaid to us readers. Celeste Ng puts together poetic sentences and knows how to paint a scene with her words, making this book an easy and enjoyable read for me for the most part. But, there is a lot of hand holding through plot assumed too difficult for readers to figure out for themselves, which is unnecessary since those moments were very predictable. There were times I knew I was supposed to think Oh, no way! but would just think Knew it. and want to move on to the next juicy thing happening. This book is very “juicy”. Lots of drama and chaos on the surface, but little meat or real substance when in the thick of it. 

Everything I Never Told You pushed me to ask myself some questions: 1. Can a character be too unlikeable? Yes. 2. When is a character too unlikeable? When I stop caring what happens to him/her. I could not stand Marilyn and James, prime examples of parents who project their fears and shortcomings onto their children (if you’ve seen Trophy Kids on Netflix, ‘nough said). While Lydia is alive they neglect their two other children, Hannah and Nath. Marilyn seems to forget Hannah even exists as she sets the dinner table for four instead of five, and can usually be found helping Lydia with homework or in a daze thinking about her lost dreams of becoming a ‘woman doctor’. A dream long gone after marriage and three kids. When Lydia dies her parents go from neglectful, selfish, and oblivious to emotionally and physically abusing to their two remaining children.

When is a character too unlikeable? When they have literally no redeeming features. The kids are pretty shitty people too, but through no fault of their own.

Relationships and family dynamics are exaggerated to the point that whenever Marilyn talks to Lydia it is always about getting good grades and becoming a doctor. James only sits Lydia down to remind her how great it is to have friends, even boyfriends, and be popular. I know what Celeste Ng is trying to drive home, but it is overstated and at every opportunity. With Marilyn being Caucasian and James being Chinese American in 1970s Ohio race is discussed endlessly throughout the book. A nice perspective to write on, but again was exaggerated at every opportunity. James is self conscious about being one of few Asian people in Ohio. His teaching assistant (also Chinese, go figure) is surprised to see a family photo with him and his gasp white wife (and actually says this). Lydia is James’ favorite child because she looks the whitest.

And there is no way to make that sentence sound any less ridiculous.

James would love to take a wet wash rag to his skin and magically wash away his Asianess and cannot stand the sight of Nath because he’s a spitting image of him in complexion, appearance, and timid personality. He often yells at or hits Nath whenever a little too much of his younger self shows through Nath’s actions or speech.

His not getting a promotion is because he is not white. He has no friends because he is not white. He feels like an outcast in his own family because he is not white.

This is the point their relationships and dialogue became uninteresting and unbelievable and I stopped wondering what happened to Lydia since she was better off dead anyway.

I have never read a story where I ended feeling so conflicted about the framework and the author’s writing. Although I closed the book feeling slightly pleased by the ending I knew I was supposed to be weighed down by the revelations that came to light, but they were lost on me since I had stopped caring. I kept on reading for Celeste Ng’s fluid style and beautiful sentences. And the juicy bits.

What books have you read that left you feeling conflicted? Do you enjoy reading about unlikable characters? When do you think an author can make their character too obnoxious?