I was entranced by Miranda July’s perspective of the world after watching her first full length film ‘Me and You and Everyone We Know.’ She has an extraordinary way of making you think about the meaning of language, the way people relate to each other, the absurdity of daily existence, the impersonality of modern life, the small hope found in artistic expression. It’s a view of the world which is entirely unique. It makes me question and it makes me laugh as much as it makes me feel blissfully disorientated. There is a danger of alienation because it makes reality so strange, yet because it approaches life from such a different point of view the sensations and feelings it evokes can resonate in unexpected ways not found in more traditional narratives.
Her new novel “The First Bad Man” is narrated by a woman named Cheryl slightly older than July herself but who maintains a similarly revelatory perspective on life. Cheryl Glickman works for a company that produces instructional self-defence videos that also highlight the benefits of burning calories while fending off your attacker. She has an attachment to an older co-worker named Phillip. She’s convinced they’ve had romantic entanglements for several lives before this one, but Phillip is sexually obsessed by a sixteen year old girl. He persistently texts Cheryl requesting permission to engage with this girl sexually and continuously thwarts her desire for him. Cheryl maintains a scrupulous obsessive-compulsive routine for maintaining cleanliness in her house. This order is thrown into chaos when she takes in a wayward young woman named Clee who is in her early twenties and the daughter of her employers. The girl is slovenly, aggressive and highly sexually charged. Cheryl and Clee’s relationship changes a number of times over the course of the novel in ways that are fascinating, disturbing and surprising. In presenting this and other relationships the novel presents a radically distorted understanding of connections between friends, lovers and children that challenges our perceptions. It gives an understanding of how our sense of self morphs as we age and our relationships to other people change.
Throughout the narrative Cheryl’s perspective of the world colours the story so thoroughly it’s as if the drone hum of normality were entirely obliterated. Her understanding precedes any conventional collective delineation of day to day life so that “my internal voice was much louder than most people’s. And incessant.” The reader is immersed in this worldview where everything is recognizable but slightly off kilter. Cheryl’s view of existence clashes with other characters’ perceptions making many of her encounters awkward. It’s as if there is a tussle between Cheryl’s internal reality and the one experienced by everyone else outside of her sphere of being. The effect can be very funny as well as painful. At times the humour runs risk of being callous. For instance, there is a scene where she gets some Ethiopian food which she decides to discard: “I put it on the curb for a homeless person. An Ethiopian homeless person would be especially delighted. What a heartbreaking thought, encountering your native food in this way.” But I believe this sort of observation highlights how we can be so thoroughly selfish we are blinkered to recognizing the integrity of other people’s existence. This is also shown in Cheryl’s uncomfortable relationship with a man who comes to garden in her backyard every week and who she believes to be homeless, but turns out to be something quite different. Her assumptions challenge the reader’s own assumptions. It makes us aware of how rooted we are in our limited reality. Cheryl becomes so frustrated with this that she “imagined shooting an old dog, an old faithful dog, because that’s what I was to myself.” But it’s her encounters with other people which challenge her and push her into taking on new roles in life and broadening her empathy.
The narrator makes some startling observations about gender and how women are perceived in society. As a woman in her early-mid forties she’s highly aware that men of her age are still perceived as virile where she is only seen to be aging. Cheryl observes: “That’s the problem with men my age, I’m somehow older than them.” This sort of contradiction points out the fallacy of assumptions we make. She also makes witty and discomfoting observations about the way women can relate to each other. In one scene Cheryl objects to her female colleague bringing a child into work. “She gave me a betrayed look, because she’s a working mom, feminism, etc. I gave her the same look back, because I’m a woman in a senior position, she’s taking advantage, feminism, etc.” This sort of standoff marks a clash of understanding in how women should assert themselves and where the meaning of social causes can be skewered by personal objectives.
There is a surprising shift in the novel when Cheryl takes on the role of motherhood with a child she hasn’t given birth to. Suddenly there is a more serious gravity to the story. Throughout her life she has perceived a child spirit that she has named Kubelko who has been waiting for her to mother. She perceives this presence in many babies she encounters. When she finally discovers the child who she can raise as her own her frighteningly closed off world opens up to include another. It’s a kind of cataclysm which prompts her to assert her individuality and right to be.
This novel marks a fascinating change and evolved method for portraying experience from the films and stories by Miranda July that I’ve seen/read before. What I admire about her as an artist is the way she questions reality at every moment where most people are comfortable shrugging their shoulders and not worrying about it. Yet her perception doesn’t have the kind of angst which would make it feel too eye-rollingly moody because it’s cognizant of the humour and farce of it all. Her writing is reminiscent of the twisted desire and mania found in Jane Bowles' “Two Serious Ladies.” It has touches of the existential discomfort found in Jean Rhys’ early novels. It can be alarming and so different some people dismissively think of her writing as quirky. But there are emotional truths here which can jostle your perceptions of the world and make it feel refreshingly new. “The First Bad Man” is both entertaining and enlightening in the way it challenges you and makes you think.