Review: The First Bad Man, Miranda July
Scribner 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.
“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.
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.
Have you ever read a book by a celebrity known for their achievements in a different field? What did you think?
Review: After Birth by Elisa Albert
Looking for a heartwarming story about new motherhood? You won’t find it here. The narrator of Elisa Albert’s second novel, Ari, gave birth to Walker a year ago but still hasn’t gotten over the disruption to her life: the constant demands on her time and affection, the decay of her postgraduate thesis, and post-traumatic flashbacks to her caesarean section. Birth wasn’t the blissful, Earth Mother experience she wanted it to be; it was more like butchery: “nightmare blur of newborn stitches tears antibiotic awake constipation tears wound tears awake awake awake limping tears screaming tears screaming shit piss puke tears.” Now don’t get her wrong; she loves Walker: “He’s an awesome baby, a swell little guy. Still a baby, though, of which even the best are oppressive fascist bastard dictator narcissists.”
So even though Ari is reasonably happy and settled in her upstate New York home with her husband Paul (a professor 15 years her senior) and Walker, putting in the occasional shift at the local co-op and sending half-hearted ideas to her advisor, she can’t escape the thought that life isn’t as it should be. That is, until Mina Morris, bassist from a late-eighties girl band, moves to town to sublet her friends’ place while they’re on sabbatical in Rome. Ari had a girl crush on Mina before she ever met her, but when she realizes Mina is nine months’ pregnant, she sees a chance to put her new mommy expertise to good use. She’ll give Mina all the advice and support she wished she’d had. When the need arises, she’ll even breastfeed Mina’s newborn son, Zev. (Albert had a similar experience when her son was failing to thrive from breastfeeding and a friend fed him for her; see her Guardian article.)
There isn’t a whole lot of plot to After Birth. Mina comes into Ari’s life for just two months and then moves on. Ari temporarily indulges her fantasy of a feminist collective where women help each other give birth and raise each other’s children; it is enough of a healing experience that she can conceive of resuming her thesis or even – ha! – having another baby. Still, she acknowledges that “the work of childbearing, done fully, done consciously, is all-consuming. So who’s gonna write about it if everyone doing it is lost forever within it? You want adventures, you want poetry and art, you want to salon it up over at Gertrude and Alice’s, you’d best leave the messy all-consuming baby stuff to someone else.”
It can be hard to warm to Ari’s sarcastic voice and jarringly short or disorientingly run-on phrases. Albert’s choice to exclude speech marks means that the whole book reads like a sort of fever dream, with past and present and different voices melding. My favorite passage is a monologue by an Oprah-like black nurse who encourages Ari in her early attempts at breastfeeding. There are also frequent flashbacks to Ari’s childhood: Jewish summer camp and the aftermath of her mother Janice’s untimely death. The memories of her mother’s illness (DES treatment leading to breast cancer) and the touches of magic realism as the dead Janice occasionally pops up alongside Ari, usually kvetching about her choices, make this uncannily similar to The Year My Mother Came Back by Alice Eve Cohen.
After Birth might not prove to be a classic of ambivalent motherhood, but if you’re in the right mood for it I reckon you’ll find it to be a striking novella.