Review: The First Bad Man, Miranda July

first bad manScribner sent me a copy of this one entirely at random. I had barely heard of the author (an indie filmmaker and visual artist) and knew nothing about the book before starting it – which is probably for the best given that a simple synopsis makes it sound even weirder than it really is and would likely have turned me off. That black-and-white cover doesn’t really give you any clues, either, though when you open it up you get the riotously colored modern art swirls of the endpapers. You could think of the design as emblematic of the book itself: unpromising from the outside but reasonably rewarding once you get into it.

 


Cheryl Glickman is a neurotic 43-year-old manager at Open Palm, a Los Angeles area women’s self-defense organization that now mostly runs fitness classes. Her obsessive personality comes through with her devotion to “the system,” a strict minimalism that involves as few possessions as possible, plus reusing everything to save time and increase efficiency, and her crush on Phillip Bettelheim, an odious colleague 22 years her senior.

The book opens with two key events: Phil recommends she undergo chromotherapy for the globus in her throat; and her bosses con her into hosting their 21-year-old daughter, Clee, who seems to do nothing but lie around watching TV. The color therapy morphs into more general therapy with Ruth-Anne, while the unwanted houseguest changes Cheryl’s life forever, though not at all in the way one might expect.

Open up the dull cover and you get the colorful surprise of the endpapers.
Open up the dull cover and you get the colorful surprise of the endpapers.

“What was the name of the situation I was in? What category was this?” Cheryl wonders to herself. Clee messes with her system and starts mocking and even physically abusing Cheryl. Instead of kicking her out, though, Cheryl codifies their fights into reenactments of some of Open Palm’s 1990s self-defense videos (the title phrase comes from one of these scenarios).

And then things get sexual. First Phil starts texting about his infatuation with a 16-year-old, asking permission to make a move. Next Cheryl starts an intense masturbation campaign, imagining Clee in various pornographic situations. Sometimes Cheryl pretends she is Phil diddling Clee. To take her mind off things, Ruth-Anne suggests that Cheryl sing. She chooses a David Bowie song.

(Still with me?)

Cheryl has conflicted feelings about Clee. She likes the physical closeness of their combative relationship. At the same time, she’s disgusted by Clee’s laziness and smelly feet. Still, she’s fixated. “Her cowlike vacuousness didn’t really bother me anymore. Or it didn’t matter—her personality was just a little piece of parsley decorating warm tawny haunches.”

Eventually Cheryl wakes up to the reality that she is “a middle-aged woman who couldn’t keep her hands off herself.” The first half of the book is about fantasy and fabrication. “Real comes and goes and isn’t very interesting,” as Ruth-Anne says. In the second, though, things swiftly turn concrete when Clee realizes she’s pregnant. Cheryl takes on an advisory and later a supportive role; “I’d been her enemy, then her mother, then her girlfriend. That was three lifetimes right there.”

Does Clee love Cheryl? Does Cheryl love Clee? It’s hard to say; “maybe that was the point of love: not to think.” Regardless, all of a sudden, Cheryl finds herself a mother. “[Clee] was the worst possible person to do this with—that was evident now, but what could I do?” July herself had a new baby at the time of writing this novel, which accounts for how authentic the Jack sections feel. It’s a bit of an aimless story, but watching Cheryl’s development is certainly interesting. I could have done without most of the Phil stuff, but it turns out he’s important to the plot.

Miranda July (from her Goodreads page).
Miranda July (from her Goodreads page).

If I had to compare July’s style to anyone else’s, it would be Douglas Coupland. At times Cheryl was also a bit like Don Tillman in The Rosie Effect, what with her matter-of-fact recounting of Jack’s fetal development. Blend the voyeuristic raunchiness of The Heart Goes Last with the uncomfortable physical reality of After Birth, two novels I’ve previously reviewed on this blog, and you get an idea of the dynamic at work here.

I can’t say I entirely enjoyed the book; I don’t always appreciate quirky-for-quirkiness’-sake. However, my utter lack of expectations was a good thing, and I thought July did a solid job of making her somewhat unpleasant characters sympathetic by making them go through one of life’s central challenges: parenthood. She also comes up with some delightfully off-the-wall sentences, as in my favorite passage, in which Cheryl vocalizes her thoughts to baby Jack:

“You are a sweet potato.”This sounded literal, as if I was letting him know he was a root vegetable, a tuber. “You’re a baby,” I added, just in case there was any confusion on that last point.

My rating: 3 star rating


Have you ever read a book by a celebrity known for their achievements in a different field? What did you think?

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