The first half of Miranda July’s novel, “The First Bad Man, ” is fascinating and fresh. Cheryl Glickman is an eccentric loner with a rich imagination. She imagines the outcome of a romantic life she and a relative stranger might share. She feels a special connection with babies she calls “Kubelko Bondy,” and she has globus hystericus, an actual affliction that causes the sufferer to feel they have a perpetual lump in their throat. The gradual exposure of Cheryl’s lifestyle and inner thoughts is amusing and joyful. July infuses her writing with love and sympathetic humor. Cheryl says, “I didn’t explain that I was single. Therapy is for couples. So is Christmas. So is camping. So is beach camping.”
When Cheryl’s bosses put her in the uncomfortable position of playing host to their unemployed, ill-mannered daughter, Cheryl’s life is turned upside down. Her homelife is controlled by her “system” which is a complicated means she’s worked out to avoid devolving into despair. Largely, it involves extreme simplification. As Cheryl explains, “Before you move an object far from where it lives, remember you’re eventually going to have to carry it back to its place—is it really worth it? Can’t you read the book standing right next to the shelf with your finger holding the spot you’ll put it back into? Or better yet: don’t even read it.” Her unwelcome houseguest, Clee, throws this careful existence into chaos with her own slovenly practices, which mostly involve laying on the couch surrounded by trash and dirty clothes. Imagine how Cheryl recoils.
July is often accused of being “twee,” or too cutesy, like a Wes Anderson character, but something interesting happens with Cheryl and Clee’s relationship that is much more nuanced and complex than anything you’d find in “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Without giving away too much of the surprise shift, July explores the dynamics of power in relationships, and the playful and hurtful aspects of role-playing.
The second half of “The First Bad Man” has a noticeable shift in narrative tone, when Clee becomes pregnant and the two women decide to birth the child together, with only the vaguest plans with what to do with the baby after that. Cheryl begins to fantasize that she is Phillip, a man she loves, and, as Phillip, has pornographic sex with Clee and other women. Where Cheryl is outwardly reserved, Cheryl-as-Phillip is cartoonish and obscene, like Japanese hentai: all gigantic penises and “jugs” and ropes of semen that spray across the room. This gender-switching in Cheryl’s fantasy feels slightly at odds with the relative mundanity of childbirth and new parent anxiety that overwhelms both Clee and Cheryl. What is most clear is that both women defy easy categorization and neither fits into her respective gendered role.
July, a consummate performance artist, has created forty objects mentioned in the book and made them available for auction (proceeds to benefit the National Partnership for Women & Families). Already “One Dollar Bill and Bobby Pin,” authenticated by July, sold for $103. Further items like “Blouse with Diagonal Pastel Stripes” and “Slip of Paper” will be available for bidding. Like the book, the objects are cerebral, weird and witty, sure to delight and confound. (Kelly Roark)
“First Bad Man”
By Miranda July
Scribner, 288 pages, $25