Miranda July’s ‘The First Bad Man’ breaks the mold of literary fiction


“It’s the most disturbing book you’ve ever read,” said a friend of mine when placing Miranda July’s first book in my hands, No one belongs here more than you. The same could be (and has been) said of the two films she wrote, starred in and directed, as well as her non-fiction book He chooses you. Although disturbing things sometimes happen in July’s films and books, her talent far exceeds her penchant for the macabre. In fact, July’s weirdness comes as a welcome side dish to the otherwise well-rounded and nourishing literary meal she serves up in her superb debut novel.

In The first villain (Scriber), July maintains — and far exceeds — her reputation for literary deviance. She introduces the world to Cheryl Glickman, her socially awkward, middle-aged narrator, and the bad life decisions she can’t seem to stop making. A veteran employee of a company that produces self-defense videos for women, Cheryl ironically has little self-respect. She falls in love with her older colleague Phillip and finds herself struggling with a young roommate Clee, the reckless daughter of her boss. During Clee and Cheryl’s cohabitation, Clee reveals her affinity for physically abusing weak-willed women, while Phillip, who sees Cheryl as a bastion of morality, asks for her permission to have sex with his girlfriend. minor.

Even though Cheryl methodically makes every decision that confronts her — simmering for months, consulting her therapist, weighing the social impact against her own satisfaction — she epically fails to do the sensible thing. She is generous to the fault, desperate for all manner of attention, and her self-loathing manifests in a lump in her throat that limits her ability to swallow. At one point in the novel, confusing Clee’s physical abuse with power, Cheryl says, “It was the opposite of being abused. I had been assaulted every day of my life and this was the first day that I had not been assaulted.

When I started reading this book, I laughed at the weak-minded narrator. In other words, I found her insupportable. She doesn’t deserve the good things she thinks are happening to her – a budding relationship with her boyfriend Phillip, a gorgeous young roommate – I thought. Of course, it doesn’t take long for all that potential happiness to melt, like wings of wax, into glorious catastrophe.

A breathtaking tragicomic beginning, The first villain solidifies July among the elite writers of our time.

Despite the humiliating dissolution of her very public romance with Clee, by the end of the novel, Cheryl shows amazing personal growth, proving that despite her egregious failures – or perhaps because of them – she can find herself in a place of (mostly) dignity. In doing so, rather than drive the reader away, July breaks through the shell of ignorance she erected for Cheryl and reveals it as a complex portrait of womanhood.

July’s greatest strength – among the many strengths of this novel – is this complication of fixed gender roles. Clee and Cheryl are selfish, misguided, willfully blind, and just plain human characters. That’s why when Clee finds out she’s pregnant, her maternal instincts don’t light her up like she’s some kind of automated fembot, just waiting for the right switch to be flipped. Quite the opposite, in fact.

As Cheryl observes, “He [Clee’s unborn baby] could only be a nightmare, someone growing inside of you whose face you hoped you would never see. The women in this novel never behave as expected. And yet, despite the sharp edges, a sweet wisdom flows through the pages: “If you were wise enough to know that this life would be mostly about letting go of the things you wanted, then why not become good at letting go, instead what’s the try to have?

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For a novel with so much emphasis on character, the plot shows no signs of neglect. I went through the twists and turns at a breakneck pace, going through years of these characters’ lives without ever stepping out of the illusion of this world. In an interview with The New York Times, July says she set out to write a thriller – and believe me when I say she did just that, and more. If you’re familiar with Miranda July’s style, you know her characters will conjure up their own unique worlds, whether that means their imaginary cats are talking to them or, in this case, African snails have invaded their living room. This novel certainly lives up to that expectation.

A breathtaking tragicomic beginning, The first villain solidifies July among the elite writers of our time. By combining the complexity of domestic realism and the delicious thrills of a thriller, July broke the mold of literary fiction. Its new characters—”She wasn’t the first villain of all time, but the first I’ve met with long blonde hair and pink velvet pants”—have all the vibrancy of enduring female leads. I think it’s safe to say that Cheryl, Clee, and July herself won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

Picture: Miranda July/Facebook


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