20 Mar 2015

Book review: The First Bad Man

3:15 pm on 20 March 2015

Hard working and seemingly free of insecurities, Miranda July has been prolific with her art, releasing a collection of short stories, movies, an app, and now her debut novel, The First Bad Man.

Miranda July

Miranda July Photo: Unknown

The book is centred around Cheryl Glickman, a middle-aged woman with a lump in her throat and an imagined child, whom she recognises in babies she makes eye contact with. She has an obsessive crush on her older colleague Philip, the object of her most intense fantasies.

Cheryl is passive and stuck in her head, which stops her from truly connecting with those around her. When her meticulous, solitary routine is upset with the arrival of 20-year-old Clee, the perpetual lump in her throat gradually subsides.

Fuelled by frustration and loneliness, Cheryl and Clee take their feelings out on each other by re-enacting the self-defence routines depicted in the videos produced by the company that Cheryl started. The violence turns erotic and Cheryl projects her fantasies about Philip onto Clee.

Listen to Ellen Falconer review The First Bad Man in On The Dial.

Throughout her multimedia work, July’s characters are often stuck in a fantasy world, more content with daydreaming as a way to ignore their isolation than to act on their wants and desires. Her depiction of loneliness and sexuality is complex; involving all of the shame and humiliation and fantasies and longing that go with it.

What is so fascinating about July’s work, as well as with Lena Dunham’s Girls, is that she highlights life’s excruciatingly awkward moments by creating characters who lack the self-awareness to recognise that the situation is uncomfortable.

While the inner monologues of a lot of July’s characters are confronting and at times disturbing, there is still a humanity to them. As we get further into the novel, Cheryl’s habits are no longer bizarre and instead become an accepted part of who she is, even a part of who we are.