Miranda July – The First Bad Man (2015)

Peculiar, hilarious, disturbing and even ridiculous—but, incredibly engrossing.

Miranda July – The First Bad Man (2015)

May 2024 • Fiction

In the wake of her new book All Fours lining the shelves of my go-to bookstore as of this month—and following her dazzling profile in The New Yorker, written by Alexandra SchwartzI decided to re-read Miranda July's previous novel, The First Bad Man, published in 2015. It was her first novel, following 2007's No One Belongs Here More Than You (a collection of short stories).

I remembered it being a bizarre read. I remembered finding it funny, but somewhat gimmicky. I remembered the absurd situations she conjured up, and the jokes she told, and I remembered them landing, too, only to be stretched a little too far, perhaps, by its author. I remembered finding the novel's main character somewhat unlikable, a bit too passive, and, well, a little farfetched, because no one in their right mind would do the things she did.

Nearly a decade later, then, I devoured the book in no time at all, and couldn't get enough of the hilarious, mind-boggling settings its characters found themselves in and the stupendous behaviour they exhibited.

The book follows Cheryl Glickman, a neurotic who lives a peculiar life, works for a non-profit women’s self-defence studio, and longs after Phillip, one of its board members. She likes to keep her home tidy—so much so that she uses a single set of cutlery to avoid the remote possibility of dirty dishes—and, when her bosses dump their apathetic, provocative and violent twenty-something daughter Clee on her, Cheryl's life, unsurprisingly, turns upside down.

Told in Cheryl's own voice, July invites us to live inside her head for the duration of her story, shifting between her careful reflections, unfiltered thoughts, vivid imaginations, and the kind of socially awkward dialogue that is entirely unusual and relatable at the same time. Like this bit, about a baby, that made me chuckle:

“Did he seem standoffish to you?” he asked.
“Standoffish? Jack?”
“Maybe I misread him. I felt a chilly reception.” He squinted intently at the sleeping shape.

She does many things: she acts out simulations from self-defence DVDs; she orders 100 snails for Rick, her homeless gardener, and keeps picking them off her ceiling when they escape; she speaks with babies; she fights Clee, and creates a plethora of sexual fantasies between her new roommate and nearly everyone she meets; and, she discovers her therapist may well be another therapist's receptionist.

All of those things sound ridiculous, and they are. But July, who possesses a writing style that is soft-footed and whimsical, weaves them into a story that is incredibly funny, and disturbing at times, yet engrossing throughout. And, in doing so, through her unconventional characters, she brings a lightheartedness to complex topics that is difficult to find.

So, while I dig into her second novel—if you can handle a little peculiarity, and posses a healthy sense of irony—I'd urge you to seek out her first, if you haven't already.

The First Bad Man by Miranda July
Published by Canongate Books in 2015

One book recommendation, once per month.
Book #16 • May 2024