Miranda July’s ‘The First Bad Man’ Breaks the Literary Fiction Mould

“This is the most disturbing book you’ll ever read,” a friend of mine said as he placed in my hands Miranda July’s first book, No One Belongs Here More Than You. The same could be (and has been) said of the two films she wrote, starred in, and directed, as well as her nonfiction book It Chooses You. Though unsettling things do sometimes happen in July’s films and books, her talent far surpasses her penchant for the macabre. In fact, July’s weirdness comes as a welcome side dish to the otherwise well-rounded and nourishing literary meal she serves up in her stunning debut novel.

In The First Bad Man (Scribner), July maintains — and far surpasses — her reputation for literary deviance. She introduces the world to her socially awkward, middle-aged narrator Cheryl Glickman, and the poor life decisions she can’t seem to stop making. A veteran employee with a company that produces self-defense videos for women, Cheryl has ironically low self-respect. She falls hard for older colleague Phillip, and gets saddled with a young, female roommate Clee, her boss’s feckless daughter. Over the course of Clee and Cheryl’s co-habitation, Clee reveals her affinity for physically abusing weak-willed women, while Phillip, who sees Cheryl as a bastion of morality, seeks out her permission to have sex with his underage girlfriend.

Even as Cheryl moves methodically through each decision that confronts her — stewing for months, consulting with her therapist, weighing the social impact versus her own satisfaction — she fails in an epic fashion to do the sensible thing. She’s generous to a fault, desperate for all sorts of attention, and her self-hatred manifests as a globus in her throat that restricts her ability to swallow. At one point in the novel, mistaking Clee’s physical abuse for power, Cheryl says: “This was the opposite of getting mugged. I’d been mugged every single day of my life and this was the first day I wasn’t mugged.”

When I began reading this book, I scoffed at the narrator’s feeblemindedness. In other words, I found her unbearable. She doesn’t deserve the good things she believes are happening to her — a burgeoning relationship with her man-crush Phillip, a gorgeous young roommate — I thought. Of course, it doesn’t take long for all this potential happiness to melt, like wings of wax, into a glorious catastrophe.

A breathtaking tragi-comic debut, The First Bad Man solidifies July among the elite writers of our day.

Despite the humiliating dissolution of her very public romance with Clee, by the end of the novel, Cheryl shows astounding personal growth, proving that regardless of her egregious fumbles — or perhaps because of them — she can come around to a place of (mostly) dignity. In doing so, rather than drive the reader away, July cracks the shell of ignorance she has erected for Cheryl and reveals her as a complex portrait of womanhood.

July’s greatest strength — among the many strengths of this novel — is this complication of fixed gender roles. Clee and Cheryl are selfish, misguided, willfully blind, and just plain human characters. Which is why, when Clee discovers she’s pregnant, her maternal instincts don’t light her up like she’s some kind of automated fembot, just waiting for the right switch to be flipped. Completely the opposite, in fact.

As Cheryl observes, “It [Clee’s unborn baby] could only be a nightmare, someone growing inside of you who you hoped never to see the face of.” The women in this novel never behave as expected. And yet, despite the sharp edges, a gentle wisdom bleeds through the pages: “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?”

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For a novel with such heavy emphasis on character, the plot shows no sign of neglect. I moved through the twists and turns at a breakneck pace, speeding through years of these characters’ lives without ever surfacing from the illusion of this world. In an interview with The New York Times, July states that she set out to write a thriller — and trust me when I say she has done just that, and more. If you’re at all familiar with Miranda July’s style, you know her characters will conjure their own unique worlds, whether that means their imaginary cats talk to them or, in this case, African snails have invaded their living room. This novel certainly lives up to that expectation.

A breathtaking tragi-comic debut, The First Bad Man solidifies July among the elite writers of our day. By combining the complexity of domestic realism and the delightful thrills of a suspense novel, July has broken the mould for literary fiction. Her new characters — “She wasn’t the first bad man ever but the first I’d ever met who had long blond hair and pink velour pants” — have all the dynamism of enduring female protagonists. I think it’s safe to say that Cheryl, Clee, and July herself will not soon be forgotten.

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