The First Bad Man #BookReview #readwomen

The First Bad Man by Miranda July was chosen by an elderly man in my book club for our September read. Last night, when we discussed the work, he confessed he planned to stop choosing books he felt would appeal to women (I’m offended that he does this in the first place, but I still like the guy overall). Basically, everyone hated July’s novel, and some people refused to finish it.

 

Published in 2015 by Scribner, The First Bad Man is inaccurately advertised. I thought the focus would be narrator Cheryl Glickman’s job at a women’s self-defense studio, as her job seems emphasized in the synopsis, but it barely plays a role. I had already imaged Cheryl kicking ass and teaching women some sweet movies while wearing karate-esque pajamas. No such luck.

Instead, it seems that the company used to teach self-defense but then cashed in by turning the moves into workout videos. Suggesting women can get thin by saving their own lives says a lot about July’s fictional world. Cheryl almost never goes to work; she puts together a yearly fundraiser, but she almost never sets foot in the office over the two years during which this novel takes place. Where does her money come from? Money doesn’t matter in July’s world. However, a couple on the board decide Cheryl — a single woman with no children at 43 — is the right person to take their daughter, Clee.

Clee is a voluptuous bomb-shell with horribly infected feet, a shitty attitude, and a violent streak. She’s 21, so why her parents decide to foist their heathen on a co-worker makes no sense. Nor did they have Cheryl’s permission, actually. If you want July’s book to fit into a reality, well, your princess is in another castle. Clee sleeps on the couch and lives like a pig. Then, she starts attacking Cheryl, slamming her to the floor and bending her arms. The book is so randomly violent for the first 50 pages that I felt sick — Cheryl doesn’t call the police or Clee’s parents, and what is July trying to say??

the-first-bad-man
Such an unremarkable cover.

There are other oddities in July’s novel: when Cheryl was 9 entertained a baby while her parents and the baby’s parents visited in the next room. Cheryl decided that the baby had a stronger bond with her than his own mother, so she dubbed him Kubelko Bondy and seeks out his soul in every baby she sees. Since Cheryl is the (most unreliable) narrator, we read her thoughts and what she thinks are babies’ thoughts. As if they talk back to her with telepathy.

Add in Phillip. He’s a 70-something man whom Cheryl feels has been her romantic soul mate for all time. July fails to establish a relationship between Phillip and Cheryl to suggest to readers why we should like one cell of his being. He admits to Cheryl via text that he’s fallen in love with a 16-year-old girl and would like Cheryl’s permission to have sex. Cheryl decides she has to think about it because she’s sad Phillip doesn’t want her. Impatient, he sends texts, like “SHE STRIPPED FOR ME: SAW HER PUSS AND JUGS. UHHHH. KEPT MY HANDS TO MYSELF.” Really, Miranda July? Who the hell are these people?

All the characters were so far removed from anything I could image being even remotely realistic. I can more easily believe science fiction creatures because it’s all about world building. When a writer builds a story, he/she must have rules for that particular universe, no matter how weird — AND THEY MUST BE ADHERED TO. As one book club member said, “this book is pudding.” Case in point: Cheryl has a therapist who tells her that the bathroom is too far away, that Cheryl will use about 30 minutes of her appointment to get to the toilet and back, so why not pee in old Chinese take-out boxes the therapist has saved. During one visit, the therapist has several boxes of old piss on her desk. What is this doing for the reader? What is the point?

I will concede that July can write beautifully. In some scenes she has descriptive settings and vivid imagery and true emotion. The problem isn’t her writing skills; it’s her failure to create something with meaningful connections and motives. Had this book gone through any of the writing workshops I was in during my college years, we would have ripped The First Bad Man to shreds.

I got this book from the library. Neither the publisher nor author were involved in my procurement of this book.

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37 thoughts on “The First Bad Man #BookReview #readwomen

  1. So let me guess…you weren’t fond of the book? 😉 In all seriousness, it certainly doesn’t sound like my sort of book at all. An unreliable narrator can be interesting, but only if it’s done really well. No, I’m afraid this one’s not going on my TBR…

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    1. One old lady in my book club said she read Amazon reviews and then refused to read the book at ALL. Another book clubber, an elderly man who is a practicing psychotherapist, wouldn’t finish it. Only three of us made it to the end. I think we were lulled somewhere in the middle with some good writing, and then it went to shit again.

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  2. This book is not for me! What exactly is the point of this supposed to be? (No need to answer this question!) Book clubs are a bit iffy, aren’t they? The current pick of my club is The Girl on the Train. I’ve decided to skip it, unless I suddenly find myself with lots of extra time to read.

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    1. TJ! It’s so good to hear from you! I’m glad your back in Bloggy Land with the rest of us nut bars ❤ I'm not sure what the point of the book was except that Miranda July appeared to translate her artistic aesthetic into a novel, and it just didn't work. I hear her art is innovative, though. Should I muster the strength, I will Google it.

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  3. I am socially inept and could imagine choosing a book that I thought might help me fit in (what I can’t imagine is sitting still while other people expressed opinions I didn’t agree with). This sounds like a very odd book that doesn’t even work as surrealism.

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    1. No, it’s definitely not surreal. Maybe it wants to be magical realism, but there should be more “real” and less “magic” if that’s the case. I love your feelings about a book club! There is one old lady who drives me INSANE, but everyone else, if prompted, gives good reasons for what they think. The grumpy old lady likes to say things like “What kind of inept person can’t finish a book in a month?” if we talk about how a book choice might be too long, but then she almost never reads the book. Last time she said, “So you all hated it! Stop talking about it!” I kinda want her car to break so she can’t come anymore, lol.

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  4. Did the man who chose the book also hate it in the end?
    I think it would be interesting to have a wide mix of people in your book club. Ours is all women around the same age and stage of life, which is fun, but maybe not as interesting. If there was all the time in the world, it would be fun to belong to a wide variety of different book clubs, wouldn’t it? Or maybe that’s just me. 🙂

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    1. We have a pretty diverse group, though given our proximity to the University of Notre Dame, most of the younger readers are grads from the college. Yes, the man who chose the book hated it, thus his feelings about “not trying to choose books to appeal to women anymore.” I told him we don’t read with our vaginas, which he thinks is funny, but he’s still trying to choose “women’s books.” I asked him more about it, and he said that the book club loved Wild by Cheryl Strayed so much (this was before I joined) that he thought they wanted books about women who are a mess and whiny. I can see where he got confused, but maybe he’s not be the most discerning reader if that’s what he took from Wild. I don’t understand Strayed’s reaction to her mother’s death, but I can empathize with the need to do A Big Thing to hit the reset button on life.

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  5. I love a good Book Club takedown of a book! 🙂 How many people are in your group? Where do you meet? How long have you been in it? (I’m interested in other clubs. My book group is all friends or friends of friends, all women in their late 30s/ early 40s. Kinda homogeneous.)

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    1. We meet the last Sunday of reach month at someone’s house. Usually there are five of us, but there are technically about 88 members. It just depends. I always take my husband. There is a man in his 60s and a lady in her 70s. A bunch of women are Notre Dame grads. Since people come once and that’s it. It started as a MeetUp.com group.

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  6. I’ve never been a part of a book club, but I’ve always wanted to. I’ve hesitate in the past because sometimes I just want to read what I want to read and let’s face it, not everyone has good taste in books. Too harsh? From your review, this novel sounds like an utter mess. I get the feeling that the author was trying to be quirky with some of these characterization (pee in an old take-out box?), but instead they just come across as irrational and underdeveloped. Hope your next book club book is better!

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    1. Well, I really wanted to make new friends. My husband and I try to make friends at work, but a lot of times it’s just not happening. It’s worth it to read a new type of books for friendship. Also, I may not love the book someone chose, but I’m trying something new, which I’m always up for.

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  7. Ouch… seems like you loved it 🙄😂😂😂 The elderly man will choose a manly action thriller next xd

    I had seen this around but didn’t have any idea of what it was about. Pass.

    Excellent honest review!

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      1. OH, yes, please DO tell us what he chooses next for the group. *grins*

        I think Miranda July does what she does very well, but it’s not a style/aesthetic/voice that I connect with either. She strikes me as an interesting person. I’ve read one book and a couple of online pieces, and I quite liked a video that she put together a few years ago. But I don’t go out of my way to find her work, although I have recommended it to a couple of people who enjoyed her more than I. *shrugs* To each her own!

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    1. I get all grumpy when people don’t finish the pick for book club, so I always power through. With this one, I REALLY thought about quitting! The last time I felt that way was when I was reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.

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    1. Ooooh, yes, if it was all this stuff you mention, I would have loved it. But all the weird smaller things that make little, or dare I say no, sense are very distracting: peeing in boxes and jars, the homeless gardener neighbor, why a twenty-something woman is foisted on a stranger, the snails crawling on everything. If the author removed many of these small elements, the themes underneath that you discuss would have shined and been brilliant to me.

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      1. I’ll admit that are a lot of gross details. It’s been almost two years since I read it (which is why I linked to my review–I honestly couldn’t remember everything that happened, just that I liked it). I do remember being a bit grossed out, but I think being familiar with her earlier work I knew what her style was like and braced myself for the ick. I might have had quite a different take if I hadn’t eased my way in with her short stories.

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