The First Bad Man
Canongate, 279pp, £14.99
For four and a half months in 2013, the film-maker, short-story writer, performance artist, actor and app creator Miranda July sent weekly emails to more than 100,000 subscribers. Each email announced its theme in the subject line (“An Email That Gives Advice”, “An Angry Email”) and consisted of a number of messages on that theme previously sent by ten of July’s friends and collaborators. Subscribers could read Sheila Heti talking a friend through a break-up, Lena Dunham emailing her boyfriend and the theoretical physicist Lee Smolin discussing his teaching commitments. The project, which July called “We Think Alone”, was motivated by the same question that lies behind her debut novel, The First Bad Man. What do people’s relationships – platonic, sexual, familial, professional – look like from the inside? How do you think a doctor relates to his receptionist, a middle-aged woman to her young house guest or to the babies she sees in the street?
The middle-aged woman is Cheryl Glickman, the novel’s narrator. Cheryl bears a strong resemblance to the delusional, isolated women of July’s 2007 story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You. She lives alone in Los Angeles and works for a non-profit organisation called Open Palm, which began as a self-defence studio and now mostly sells fitness DVDs. As a child, she spent an afternoon caring for a baby with whom she felt a deep connection; she never saw him again, but searches for his reincarnated soul in every baby she passes. She also obsesses over Phillip, a member of the Open Palm board and an irredeemable creep.
Cheryl’s baroque fantasies contrast with the minimalism of her day-to-day life, which she runs according to a system of terrifying logic designed to mask her depression: “How much time do you spend moving objects to and fro? Get rid of your clothes hamper and put the dirty clothes directly in the washing machine . . . Can’t you read the book standing right next to the shelf with your finger holding the spot you’ll put it back into?”
Into this rigid existence comes Clee, the daughter of Open Palm’s founders. Clee is 20, large and brash and is possessed of a kind of overripe beauty. She’s also rude, ignoring the house rules and belittling and threatening her host. These threats turn physical and then erotic, and soon the two women are engaged in a series of silent, thrilling battles for which Cheryl struggles to find a precedent. She discovers that her therapist is having an affair with another doctor at the clinic where she occasionally takes on the role of the building’s receptionist; the therapist unconvincingly describes this as “an immensely satisfying adult game”. Is this what Cheryl is doing with Clee? At the same time Phillip wants her permission to consummate his relationship with a teenager; he texts her progressively lewder messages describing their interactions. (“. . . I RUBBED HER THROUGH HER JEANS. WE DON’T THINK THAT COUNTS. NO ORGASM.”)
Initially, The First Bad Man suggests a bleak view of things: relationships are nothing more than private fantasies bumping up against one another, enduring only as long as those fantasies coincide. But although the relationship between Cheryl and Clee is never going to be conventional, it does develop into something that requires negotiation, and makes evident Cheryl’s astonishing naivety. “Not many people could do this . . . fitting together so perfectly the way we do,” she says to Clee, referring to the way in which they sleep, with “Clee [holding] me from behind and our bodies interlocked like two Ss”. “Everyone does this,” Clee replies, two decades younger and light years more experienced. In these moments July is at her best, combining sweetness with a sense of the strangeness and cruelty of desire. Some of this is lost as the novel moves towards a redemptive, almost fairy-tale conclusion – but it is still an unusual redemption, built around new forms of love and community.
In exploring such forms, The First Bad Man joins recent novels by Sheila Heti and Ben Lerner. But it stands out from these in its choice of a protagonist who is not young or hot or hip or talented. The risk of departing from conventionality is higher for Cheryl, whose survival has for so long been premised on blending in. And it’s a risk for July, too, asking her readers to spend 275 pages in the company of a character outwardly so unappealing. The risk pays off: Cheryl’s voice, by turns oblivious and acute, is one of the highlights of this perceptive and funny novel.