The First Bad Man by Miranda July
26th Feb 2015
The protagonist Cheryl Glickman’s globus hysetricus (the lump in her throat) acts as a supporting character to the unsayable words and unthinkable thoughts (“should I introduce myself or try to kill him?”) that live in limbo in this novel’s many-roomed universe, with babies slotted inside other babies like babushka dolls, lives that hint at other lives, ones with fancy costumes and ye olde English, where “seaweed hands [live] inside normal man hands”, thoughts have implied British accents, the act of chewing lives in double quotes, smoothies makers are emotionally manipulative and feminism is prefixed with etc., etc. This is the banal ritualistic magic of survival: what we do and what we mean, in short, the simple, strange subjectivity of being human.
The first question you used to get on creepy mid-noughties chatrooms was A/S/L: age, sex, location, and Miranda mushes these up with a ‘cat sat on the mat’ kind of precision. A shifting grossness found in both the craft of writing, the sentence structures, the languages utilized, but also in the themes and ideas conveyed, all are a compact contradiction.
There is a “backbone without a back”, a man named Gary who “looked like he was wearing sunglasses even without them”, Cheryl’s roommate Clee who “the more pregnant she became the less like a woman she was”, the confusion between “boo like a ghost” and “boo, like you’re my boo.” Julia Kristeva says a lack of borders is where abjection lies, but here it seems these strange contrasts, the ‘this’ and ‘that’, mine and yours and him and hers, are where the bad things (the bad men) live.
This extends into questions of power, of sex, submission and dominance, masochism and feminist empowerment, where misogyny is a sexual orientation and middle aged manhood is the ultimate sexual fantasy.This extends into questions of power, of sex, submission and dominance, masochism and feminist empowerment, where misogyny is a sexual orientation and middle aged manhood is the ultimate sexual fantasy. As a survivor I have always been struck by the implied theme of childhood sexual abuse that runs through July’s work; the intergalactic trauma of Getting Stronger Every Day, and the imagined Lolita lust of her short story The Man on the Stairs. The First Bad Man continues this with its baby boyfriends, “tiny husbands” and actual girls for girlfriends. Age is both rigidly definite and horribly mutilated, like that episode of The Twilight Zone, where one lover stays very young and the other gets very old.
Cheryl’s love is not airy, not flighty, not fleeting. It possesses the heavy set determination of a particularly strong willed child: “I knew that he loved me more” (he being a child, who would later be many children). The immaturity of the adult love of all these babies, of ‘I want that one’, that thing, that man, that baby and I want him NOW. It slots in her with her 2005 movie, Are You The Favorite Person of Anybody? Because are you, though? Are you? And, as Cheryl sings, will you stay in our lover’s story? Will you? Will you?
Love is constructed from two parts, the dream of the lover and the dream of the self, so whilst this story may be of love (even if it is the scary kind non-Nicholas Sparks kind) it is not about togetherness. Cheryl is a study in self-hood, in isolation: she is her own servant, her own dog; but twoness, not oneness, is the goal.
Because in this book one is not peaceful, one is not whole, it is weird and sad and worrying, a “sorrowful creature putting itself together” in strange systems and inside jokes and loud incessant internal voices. Like the bit in Ghost World where Steve Buscemi says “You think it’s healthy to obsessively collect things? You can’t connect with other people, so you fill your life with stuff?” And despite the enforced emptiness of Cheryl’s system even the words have stuff, “a silly clown nose on the thought”, “kisses placed on lids like boxes.” Emotional clutter still counts, even if your house is super tidy.
A common dismissal of Miranda July is that her sole defenders, the ones who write the rosy reviews, who buy her DVD’s, are uncritical consumers, unlocking their jaws for any kind of output, in any kind of medium, but this is untrue, and unfair, as misogynistic a portrait of her audience as the supposedly “quirky” misconceptions of the artist herself. This is not simply a good work ‘for Miranda July’ (a mean-spirited comment that makes her seem like a brand of microwave meals, rather than a multi-faceted artist) but a good novel full stop. (Pun intended).