The First Bad Man by Miranda July

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Cheryl Glickman — isolated, alone and with no true friends to speak of — is an acute example of the lonesome modern narrator. Miranda July’s first fully-fledged non-screen female protagonist has a life organized so rigidly in The First Bad Man that it has ‘no edges anywhere’. Everything in Cheryl’s life is clean, every detail ordered with obsessive compulsion to create a ‘smoother living experience’ with ‘none of the snags and snafus that life is so famous for’. What Cheryl comes to realize, of course, is that it is precisely these ‘snags and snafus’ that create a life worth living. With no real edges her life remains hollow; she pines for a child she has never had and idolizes a man as a lover from a past life. Her desires, however human, are suffocated in fantasy. In this veiling her cravings are made remote, safely ‘smooth’ in her squeaky clean home.

In her first novel July works on the oldest of tropes, that love is never a ‘smooth’ road. So when Cheryl inevitably finds love, it is only with its loss that she discovers the complexities of life that refuse to be controlled. Love in this book is as complex as love should be; it emerges in the most unexpected of places and does so rapidly, the kind of love that catches you unaware but on closer inspection you realize was bubbling under the surface all along. Some moments are particularly poignant:

I looked at her sleeping face, the living flesh of it, and was overwhelmed by how precarious it was to love a living thing. She could die simply from lack of water. It hardly seemed safer than falling in love with a plant.

July masters the art of submerging us comfortably in unfamiliar territory. Our narrator, has such a strong voice it is impossible to not be swept up in her world, full of the petty problems of everyday living and the dilemmas that come her way when a stranger comes to stay.

This stranger, the young, careless and unemployed Clee, comes with all the stereotypical baggage one might expect. She doesn’t wash the dishes, she’s glued to the TV screen and she disregards the rigid rules of Cheryl’s carefully ordered life completely. However, this unlikely pairing fosters a relationship that develops at a ferocious speed in which violence and love come to intermingle. As the two outsiders are brought together in the sanctity of Cheryl’s home the chaos of Clee’s new ways bring life to a previously lifeless abode.

Clee’s life is one tarnished with flaws, in many ways it’s repulsive, yet July never shies away from these uncomfortable realities. She reveals upset secrets about desire and sexuality, exposing them with the unnerving frankness of a surgeon. The strangeness of Cheryl’s thoughts are presented as simply a part of who she is, they are never excused or hidden. What should be daunting becomes instead a mundane mix of the obscene and the ordinary. There are times at which the hyperbole of certain situations does become tiresome, the constant pushing to surprise ironically tedious, but these features are redeemed through July’s execution. It’s evident from the start of the book that she has a skill at articulating specific scenarios of life in unexpectedly grounded terms. The ‘closing kisses’ of a relationship for example:

There were a series of closing kisses, goodbye kisses, kisses placed like lids on boxes—then the lid would pop off and need to be replaced. There, this is the final kiss—no, this is the final kiss. This one is, it really is. And now I’m just kissing that kiss good night.

The images are simple but so perfectly placed it is hard not to be enchanted. The ‘kisses placed like lids on boxes’ could be seen as reworking the old metaphor ‘every pot has its lid’, but it is this reworking and re-evaluating of images that makes July’s prose so intriguing to read. As she mediates on love she highlights striking insights even early on in the novel:

Then I realized that we all think we might be terrible people. But we only reveal this before we ask someone to love us. It is a kind of undressing.

I’m unafraid to say when I began this book I had reservations. Glowing, overly eager recommendations from so many authors I admired, and so many that I didn’t? There had to be a catch. With so much hype and anticipation, the many interviews and articles, it felt like I almost didn’t need to read the novel, I’d read so much about it already. Often it is at the ending of such deftly written books that the story snags; questions are left unanswered and the reader left frustrated. For a writer so well versed in the art of the short story, it’s a fair to assume the format of a longer work might take on some of the qualities of these shorter more practised forms. So at first I was unsurprised when the end of this debut came up a little too short, a stop that left too many things unsaid. But July’s mastery comes in the jewel of her epilogue. It’s a finale that comes as a sweet and eagerly anticipated release, one that completes the book in unexpected and delicious euphoria.

By Thea Hawlin