‘This is a novel about how strange people deal with a baby entering their lives’ – The First Bad Man by Miranda July
Let’s talk trajectory first, shall we? We liked July’s movie Me and You and Everyone We Know (a lot – we’re big fans of John Hawkes in our house) and we liked July’s collection of short stories, No-one Belongs Here More Than You – although we were less fond of her movie The Future and her nonfiction, It Chooses You. We weren’t aware of the various installations and apps she’s been involved with until we read the author info at the back of her debut novel, The First Bad Man, which probably means that we are yet to regard ourselves as hipster fanboys of July (those people we are hipster fanboys of, we tend to Google a bit, and loiter on sites and see what we can pick up periodically). In terms of where The First Bad Man fits in the great scheme of July stuff we’ve interacted with: not quite up there with Me and You… or No-one Belongs… but better than It Chooses You.
Now, it’s possible if you pick up the book without our very considered positioning you would be bludgeoned into thinking here is a book I must like based on the sheer volume of interesting people prepared to wager their mortgages on the genius of the book. AM Holmes, Lena Dunham, George Saunders, Dave Eggers and Chris Ware, to name five. If you were about to launch your debut novel on an unsuspecting world, you could do a lot worse than have the above people hitch their wagon to it. Those names help you to understand that THIS BOOK IS COOL. It doesn’t matter what else happens. THIS BOOK IS COOL. If you are seen reading this book in a park or on the underground, I can guarantee you that there will be someone around you, someone you don’t know, thinking: THAT PERSON IS READING A COOL BOOK ERGO THAT PERSON IS COOL. July’s typeface (white words on a black backdrop) is becoming as recognisable in its own way as Woody Allen’s typeface. She is obviously A PERSON WITH STYLE. All of this goes a long way. The comforting blanket of cool that The First Bad Man drapes about your shoulders feels nice. You feel like one of the in-crowd for a bit, even if the book turns out to be a big bestseller (bestselling cool not always walking hand in hand).
Eventually, though, you find yourself a person in a room reading a book. Eventually you stop looking up every five seconds to see if anyone is looking at you as you read the new Miranda July book and you just read. And what you read is: a story about a lady called Cheryl Glickman who has a condition called Glotus Hystericus (which is a psychological complaint in which a person imagines they have an obstruction in their throat even though they don’t). Cheryl works for an organisation called Open Palm, which used to sell self-defense videos to young women and now rely on fitness DVDs to bring the shekels in the door. She also has a bit of a thing for a guy called Philip, who sits on the Board of Open Palm, even though Philip is somewhat strange (we learn how strange he is as the book proceeds and Philip reveals that he has a thing for a young girl rather than for Cheryl, although he does seem to have a thing for Cheryl too). It isn’t until Cheryl agrees to admit her bosses’ daughter Clee into her home, however, that the strangeness of the novel really gets to cook. Clee is not what you would call the friendliest of people. Readers of Magnus Mills may start to wonder if July is exploring the territory of how someone can find themselves doing things they really don’t want to do out of politeness’ sake. But she isn’t. Bullying becomes a kind of a game that allows the two of them to re-enact videos that Open Palm produced back in the day. The title of the book comes from a video they re-enact in which Clee performs as a number of different gang members (Cheryl asks her which one she is at a precise moment and is told, the first bad man). Eventually they graduate to having a kind of relationship (The First Bad Man could just as easily have been called The Accidental Lesbian). But this is not the full measure of the book.
The First Bad Man is a strange book. At the beginning, we learn that Cheryl has imaginary conversations with babies that she meets who she thinks of as representing a baby she knew when she was small, whose name she can’t remember but who she has christened Kubelko Bondy. Later in the book, when Clee becomes pregnant, we know that Cheryl will be compelled to explore her relationship with Kubelko Bondy in more detail (and she does). In fact, if you want to reduce The First Bad Man down to a single sentence in order to understand what it is about, you could do worse than say: this is a novel about how strange people deal with a baby entering their lives. Yet even this doesn’t do the job entirely or enough. And herein lies the problem. Everyone in July’s world is strange. Whether we’re talking about Cheryl and Clee, or Philip, or Clee’s parents, or Cheryl’s psychologist, or Cheryl’s psychologist’s secretary, who may also be a psychologist herself, everyone is strange. It’s like she has taken the theme to the Addams Family (‘they’re creepy and they’re kooky, mysterious and spooky, they’re altogether ooky,’ etc), and used it as the basis of her entire worldview. And look, I’m not saying that people aren’t strange. I’m not saying that I want quote-unquote normal people in the books I read. The problem with The First Bad Man is kookiness. It’s too kooky. Not everyone in the world is a kook. I’ll admit that the world might be full of kooks, but there are also oddballs, perverts, weirdos and nutjobs too. July’s world is not variegated enough. And that is why The First Bad Man ultimately fails in what it sets out to do.
Any Cop?: Interesting and unusual, sure, but also a little too strange for strangeness’ sake. Strange in an ‘ooh, look at how strange I am’ sort of way. Which is somewhat alienating. At least to this reader.
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- March 6, 2015 / 5:00 am