REVIEW: The First Bad Man by Miranda July

Cheryl Glickman likes things done a certain way. She likes everything done a certain way. She lives alone. Each of her activities is governed by a system. No trip to the kitchen is wasted; she doesn’t have time for plates or a mess. All is well until her boss’ 21 year-old daughter, Clee, moves in. But in Miranda July’s new novel, The First Bad Man, Cheryl’s disrupted living situation is the least of her worries.

July lets us peer into Cheryl’s odd life: her anxiety-driven throat congestion, her odd sense that she’s seeing a baby she met when she was nine as he is born into new bodies, her awkward social graces, her habit of peeing in jars when nervous. Cheryl lives an intense fantasy life that often bleeds awkwardly into her social interactions.

But the people surrounding Cheryl are by no means any less strange. She sees a questionable therapist who uses questionable techniques that blur the lines of what can be called “professional.” Cheryl works for a self-defense nonprofit governed by some oddly cherry-picked Japanese workplace traditions. In a revelatory moment about her character, Cheryl tells us that she was asked to work from home. Even in strange situations, she does not quite fit.

Once Carl had called me ginjo, which I thought meant “sister” until he told me it’s Japanese for a man, usually an elderly man, who lives in isolation while he keeps the fire burning for the whole village. […] Then he told me my managerial style was more effective from a distance, so my job was now work-from-home though I was welcome to come in one day a week and for board meetings.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that Cheryl almost never actually works — at home or otherwise — but her relationship with the nonprofit is only one more thread in the strange fabric of her life.

Inside the home, what begins as frustration with Clee’s sloppy habits as a roommate turns into a confused physical tangle. Clee, a buxom blonde bully with hygiene and modesty issues, takes on an active role as aggressor. Cheryl gladly plays the submissive role, and they battle in increasingly bizarre scenarios. They fight regularly — first it’s shoving but then it transforms into mechanically acting out scenarios from the nonprofit’s old instructional videos.

[T]he moment I shut the front door, she grabbed my hair and jerked my head back. A silly gasping noise escaped me. No scenario; she was fighting the old way. It took a moment to reorganize — to switch places with her and become Phillip. He shoved her against the wall. Yes. It had been a while since we’d given it any gusto; this was just the release I needed. She deserved it for her loose behavior.

Cheryl slowly realizes an attraction to Clee, yet like many things, she is not able to understand it directly. Several of the characters in the novel have to be distracted by their own imaginations in order to be physical with the person in front of them. Cheryl takes this to the extreme, creating scenarios that fold back into each other again and again. She turns her submissive fights with Clee into aggressively sexual, bizarrely mental scenarios where she is the attacker. She is less a participant in her own life; rather, she is more like someone acting out perverse versions of truth. July renders Cheryl with a combination of naïveté and wisdom. She understands little about herself or others in the world, yet she is able to float across lines of social and sexual taboos without a sense of guilt.

July’s prose relaxes most into her treatment of Cheryl’s complicated maternal feelings. Sometimes she directs these feelings toward Clee, but ultimately it is her relationship with Kubelko Bondy, the baby she remembers from her own childhood and sees in many faces, that allows July to stretch. As in the rest of The First Bad Man, July avoids cliché. In her descriptions of motherhood she touches the deepest part of Cheryl as a character.

I forced myself to look at the tiny gray body. His eyes were shut. He didn’t know where he was. He couldn’t deduce, from the beeps and the sound of feet on linoleum, that he was in a hospital. He didn’t even know what a hospital was. Every single thing was new and made no sense. Like a horror movie, but he couldn’t even compare it to that because he knew nothing about the genre. Or about horror itself, fear. He couldn’t think, I’m scared — he didn’t even know I.

“Jack is your name now,” she explains to him. “But Kubelko Bondy will always be the name of your soul.” Cheryl has long, silent conversations with the child, not realizing until he has lived with her for months that other people talk to their children. Since July writes Cheryl as a character who exists outside social norms, she is able to tackle social taboos in a way that’s both fresh and even a little cringe-worthy. Both Motherhood and sexuality blur. Sexual drive and the putrid stench of feet. Reincarnation and ageless love. July ventures to the edges of our comfort zone and then pushes on. Nothing about The First Bad Man holds back.

This novel will be talked about for its ability to test boundaries, particularly the boundaries of sexual labels or forbidden love. But it’s worth mentioning the readability of July’s prose. Her success in carrying us through the strange world of Cheryl Glickman is a testament to her skill. This is a bizarre story, but an alluring one, and one that ends in a moment of satisfaction. July creates a character in Cheryl who elicits our empathy, but also a visceral response. Her conviction in her specific belief system makes her a character we want to understand, if not become. She understands herself, and she is most certain of the genesis of Kubelko Bondy. “I didn’t make him,” she acknowledges, “but I did each thing right so he would be made.”

The First Bad Man

by Miranda July

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