Miranda July’s recent novel, The First Bad Man, is the story of Cheryl: a slightly lost, often mistaken, out of touch, middle aged, single woman with a shifting relationship with reality. As she slips in and out between what’s reliably happening and her own fantasies, she enters a space where anything goes. And it’s her laissez faire attitude toward life that makes this book fun to read.
The first bit of quirk comes when Cheryl begins a fight-club like relationship with Clee, her bosses’ twenty-year-old daughter who has come to live with Cheryl just ‘cause. With the help of Ruth-Anne, Cheryl’s therapist, Cheryl realizes that Clee’s aggressive and sometimes physically violent behavior is part of her practicing adulthood. Instead of giving her a talking to, Cheryl chooses to participate and what follows is a beautiful description of what it feels like to be close to someone else.
“The pressure began, my bones panicked, and then a kind of rhythm began to hum in my veins, something like a waltz – so I waltzed. I butterflied her elbows and they bent reflexively. I slid along the wall, using it for balance as I tried to bang her head against it…And just when my back began to spark into flames, the endorphins arrived, just like last time, but stronger. My throat was a warm easy puddle; my face against the floor felt cold and wonderful.”
Later, when Cheryl visits Ruth-Anne for a therapy session, she brings along a gift that the therapist returns right away. “It was a soy candle. Not the little kind, but a column in a glass jar, with a wooden lid.” The therapists asks Cheryl to think about who else the candle might be for; whether there might be someone else who is in need of a little extra light or illumination. In this particular hard-to-believe moment, not because the characters don’t feel real, but because Cheryl so misguided, we learn that her relationship with Clee is becoming instrumental to her own emotional development.
All the while, Cheryl is forging a text relationship with Phillip, a co-worker / superior who has confided in her that he has an obsession with younger women. “SHE STRIPPED FOR ME: SAW HER PUSS AND JUGS. UHHH. KEPT MY HANDS TO MYSELF. My blessing still reigned. Of course is did. I had to have faith in him. We’d been prehistoric together, medieval, king and queen – now we were this…And the details – the text messages – were just riddles from the universe.” Through the crass, July captures the way that technology can be a messenger of the inappropriate and how we can interpret even the worst of signs as something in line with our own greater good.
The structure of the book is a little unconventional too. While the build up of characters and conflict happens in the first hundred or so pages, the main pivot point happens almost exactly in the middle. From there the story, if not the internal monologues, become much more grounded in reality. And the end doesn’t happen until the very last page, when the epilogue jumps us twenty years in time and all metaphor gives way to real life intimacy, all joking aside.