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??
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.