My first encounter with Miranda July’s fiction was in the Zadie Smith-edited anthology The Book of Other People, where her story ‘Roy Spivey’ was one of the best on offer. Then I read her collection No-one Belongs Here More Than You, which impressed me with its ability to turn between funny and sad on a sixpence. Now we have July’s debut novel, which turns out to be more multifaceted still, and already seems as likely to be one of my favourite books of the year as Dept. of Speculation did last year, or May We Be Forgiven a couple of years earlier.
The First Bad Man comes plainly packaged: black and white, block text only, no illustration, and no blurb. There are some quotes of praise which touch on the content, and my hardback came with a yellow belly band adding praise from A.M. Homes. It seems to me that praise from other writers on the cover of a book is often read, intentionally or otherwise, as shorthand: “If you enjoy my books, you’ll like this.” On this occasion, the inference would be spot on, and my reference to Homes’ novel above wasn’t coincidental. Like May We Be Forgiven, this is a family story which continually surprises and subverts expectations.
My experience of reading it was roughly in thirds: first funny, sometimes silly; then strange, even unsettling; and finally an emotional going-over. But the borders bled – it mixed things up – and overall the effect was of being wrung out on a rollercoaster. Our guide is Cheryl Glickman, who is over forty and single, and working for Open Palm, a company that makes self-defence fitness DVDs (“It’s a catch-twenty-two,” says one of the presenters. “With your new ripped bod, you may actually get attacked more often!”). Cheryl is taken advantage of by her employers but can’t see it, so blinded is she by love for her colleague Phillip, twenty years her senior and a bit of a heel. The opening scenes peel open Cheryl’s discomfort with exquisite phrasing and timing: when she makes a feeble gambit to keep a phone conversation with Phillip going, “What silence. Giant domed cathedrals never held so much emptiness.” She sees children and imagines them hers (“Not mine biologically, just … familiar”), and all her distress over everything manifests itself as a constriction, literally a lump, in her throat she calls globus hystericus. She seeks treatment for this from a doubtful therapist, while in place of true closeness with Philip, she accepts a position as his confidante over his sex life (“With all my throw pillows around me, poised at the lip of intimacy – I felt like a king”), which leads to a bleak running joke. She also allows Clee, the daughter of her employers, to stay with her, and this is where the book shifts its first gear.
When you live alone people are always thinking they can stay with you, when the opposite is true: who they should stay with is a person whose situation is already messed up by other people and so one more won’t matter.
Clee is twenty and the sort of young woman whom “women looked up and down and then looked away.” But – and unlike with Cheryl – “men did not look away. Some men even said hi, as if they knew her, or as if knowing her was about to begin right now.” Cheryl’s own relationship with Clee is much more complicated than that. She feels that the two of them are so different that they can’t both fit the simple description of “woman”. A woman, Cheryl feels, “talks, too much – and worries, too much – and gives and gives in.” Clee does none of these things. Mindful of that blurbless cover, I won’t say much about Cheryl and Clee’s relationship, except that it brings forward all the subtext in the book about power and abuse and bullying and dependence, and that it’s definitely not what you think.
“I’m not … you know. I’m into dick.”
“We’re in the same boat, as far as that goes,” I said. I saw us in a little dinghy together, liking dick on the big dark sea.
With Cheryl we have a heroine who is so deprived of the things we take for granted that when someone wounds her, she reflects that “no one had ever talked to me like this before, so cruelly. And yet so attentively. […] Some real thought had gone into this little speech – it wasn’t just careless hostility.” Driven by these factors, the book, centred on Cheryl and her therapist and Phillip and Clee, gets more and more odd and disturbing. It asks us to consider who its characters really are, and who they pretend to be: the title comes from a fictional character in a fitness DVD being played on a further fictional level by Clee. What is ‘real’ in a story, and in how we present ourselves to others? When and with whom are we at our most real? “Real comes and goes and isn’t very interesting,” Clee says, and during these sections and beyond The First Bad Man becomes big enough to make us question whole social assumptions around love, families, sex and relationships. It grows both hysterical and dark, exemplified by the scene halfway through where Cheryl feels herself crack as a waiter flirts with Clee. “He thought I was her mother.” It’s a measure of the way the book held me in its power that the final nine words of the following passage – you won’t believe it, not yet – made me feel more moved than I have by a book in months, perhaps years. To put it another way, it is perfect evidence of Babel’s dictum that “no iron can pierce the human heart with the force of a full stop put just at the right place.”
He didn’t have enough experience to guess I might be stiff and shaking with violence. How shocked he would be when I bent her over the dinner table, pushed up her dress, and jimmied my member into her tight pucker. I’d thrust with both hands high in the air, showing everyone in the restaurant, including the chefs and sous-chefs and busboys and waiters, showing all of them I was not her mother.
It’s hard to follow that. In this review, I’m not sure I can, but in the book July does, by shifting the focus again, this time to an emotional story so nakedly told that in less skilled hands it would be sentimental. There are still silly jokes, of course (“Do you know what persona non grata means? It’s Latin for person not great“), but the way July has set up the reader through the rest of the book means that the hairpins and switchbacks in the story feel like just part of the ride, another unexpected angle seen from the rollercoaster. Not incidentally, the last 60 pages feature some of the best writing on parenthood I have seen, and made me shake with vertiginous recognition more than once. “If you were wise enough to know that this life would consist mostly of letting go of things you wanted, then why not get good at the letting go, rather than the trying to have?” It was when I read lines like that, and felt wounded and winded, that I realised The First Bad Man had somehow rewired my brain in the process of reading it. Long may it last.