This post contains spoilers.
At its best, my system gives me a smoother living experience. My days become dreamlike, no edges anywhere, none of the snags and snafus that life is so famous for. 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.
I first discovered Miranda July a couple of years ago, through her short stories (particularly the collection No One Belongs Here More Than You). Miranda July reminds me a lot of myself, both in terms of ideas and writing style (although her stories are much clearer and funnier than mine). For me, first reading Miranda July was one of those wonderful experiences of discovering a writer I really relate to. So many of her observations reflect my own, so many of her characters’ obsessions and fears and joys are also mine. I find her writing both funny and sad. In short, Miranda July has tapped into something that – in my subjective experience – feels completely real. Sometimes this is an immensely satisfying relief, sometimes it is confronting, and sometimes it is kind of embarrassing:
Putting new soap in the bathroom? Maybe wait until the towels in the dryer are done and carry the towels and soap together. Maybe put the soap on the dryer until then. And maybe don’t fold the towels until the next time you have to use the restroom. When the time comes, see if you can put away the soap and fold towels while you’re on the toilet, since your hands are free.
Yep. I’ve had thoughts that come pretty close to this. Thanks Miranda, for making me a little more conscious of my own craziness.
I started The First Bad Man (July’s first novel) while I was on holiday a few weeks ago, and quickly finished it once I was back at work. It wasn’t exactly what I’d describe as un-put-down-able, but it was certainly easy to come back to. I was invested, perhaps slightly hypnotized; I wanted to make it to the end.
The First Bad Man’s protagonist is Cheryl Glickman, a forty-something manager of the women’s self-defence company Open Palm. Like many of the characters from July’s short stories Cheryl is eccentric; prone to fantasy, a stickler for ritual and routine, lost in her own head. She spends her days working from home, being in love with Phillip Bettelheim (an Open Palm board member who is more than twenty years older than her), and keeping an eye out for babies who might be inhabited by the soul of Kubelko Bondy (a toddler she bonded with when she was eight). Cheryl’s world (including her housekeeping system) is shaken up when the daughter of her narcissistic bosses comes to stay. Clee is twenty years old, busty, rude, and violent. She becomes entwined in Cheryl’s life in a number of unexpected (and uncomfortable) ways.
I don’t know if I would describe The First Bad Man as a comedy. It certainly has funny moments, but it is also serious, touching, and sad. The fact that July is able to move the narrative from a place of satirical absurdity to an examination of what it means to be a mother is impressive, and ambitious. Like her stories, though, July’s novel is most successful in the details. In the hilarious and poetic description of Cheryl’s ears:
…darling little shells. I wear my hair tucked behind them and try to enter crowded rooms ear-first, walking sideways.
And the articulation of the constant interplay between fantasy and reality:
His hand had a heat and weight that only real hands do. A hundred imaginary hands would never be this warm.
And the moments of raw insight that force you to stop reading and think:
Then I realized that we all think we might be terrible people. But we only reveal this before we ask someone to love us.
I think it should be pointed out, as Lauren Groff does in this New York Times review, that we should avoid using words like ‘whimsical’ and ‘quirky’ to discuss female writers like Miranda July. Such terms detract from the seriousness of her work – and her work is serious. It is intelligent, funny, satirical, philosophical, and complex. Calling it ‘whimsy’ feels like comparing it to a carousel, or a magic trick. And The First Bad Man is definitely no magic trick.
The biggest problem (and it is not really a very big one) with July’s first novel, I think, is simply that it is very much like a short story. The First Bad Man is made up of a lot of different bits and pieces that do feel like they each could have had their own five thousand word story (the delivery of a box of live snails, for example; Japanese customs in the office, chromotherapy). Stringing all of these things together in a novel tends to lead, as Laura Miller points out in The Guardian, to a sort of “unamusing absurdity”. I must admit that I enjoyed The First Bad Man the most at the beginning, where I first remembered how much I love the peculiar details of July’s writing. By the time I got to the middle I was less interested; I think I was waiting for the storyline, the characters, and the setting to broaden out into something more novelistic in scale, which doesn’t really happen (at least, not in any traditional way). Being inside Cheryl Glickman’s head for a few thousand words is intriguing, funny, and revealing. But staying there for an entire novel does feel a bit limiting. And The First Bad Man is completely about Cheryl – none of the other characters are examined with any real depth at all (which is part of the point, I think).
I want to re-read The First Bad Man, but not yet. It feels like the kind of novel that needs to simmer in the brain for a while before being returned to. I want to let things rise to the surface before I plough back into the text, searching for meaning. When Kevin Nance from the Chicago Tribune asked Miranda July if The First Bad Man has a theme, July replied “I don’t think so, and I would say that’s probably for the best.” I would probably agree.
Miranda July is not only a writer, she is also a filmmaker, performance artist, and creator of the app ‘Somebody.’ She is perhaps best known for the 2005 film Me and You and Everyone We Know. The First Bad Man was published in 2015.