Bibliophile: The First Bad Man by Miranda July


Book Review The First Bad Man

The First Bad Man

Miranda July


Author, artist and filmmaker Miranda July’s first novel, ‘The First Bad Man’, is one of this year’s most highly anticipated publications. Her highly successful collection of short stories, ‘No One Belongs Here More Than You’, published in 2007, was acclaimed for its portrayals of intimate human peculiarities and perversions. She’s also become widely known for her film ‘Me and You and Everyone We Know’, which she wrote, directed and starred in, as well as her 2011 film ‘The Future’. While she’s been keeping busy, it’s been eight years since her last fiction book was published and those who have followed her work are keen to see if her unique take on human vulnerability holds up in a longer story.

Our heroine in this literary journey is one Cheryl Glickman, a middle-aged manager at a not-for-profit womens’ self defense organisation. Over the years she has settled into an efficient, solitary routine that allows her to move through life making as little mess as possible. This delicate balance is upset when she’s saddled with the task of housing Clee, the grown daughter of her employers.

Cheryl narrates her life with all the matter-of-factness and brutal honesty that can be afforded inside one’s own head, where her neuroses fester and develop into private habits and psychological games to play with the world around her. We are treated to a number of personal oddities: a belief that herself and a coworker have been married in various past lives and a constant search for a kindred spirit in each baby she comes across.

Predispositions such as these are common to July characters, who frequently have methods of attaching meaning to the repetitive and banal elements of life. Many have written off July’s writing as being simply ‘quirky’, which fails to account for the human vulnerability that belies the everyday strangeness of her characters. Glickman in particular is a complex character, she is in equal measures frustrating and endearing, perverted and sympathetic, and her hard-won transformation, which is in many ways out of her control, is engaging and relatable.

I read this book greedily over two days, gulping it down whenever I got a spare moment. I couldn’t get it into me fast enough, and at the same time I regretted my voracious behaviour while I was doing it because I knew that this meant it would be over soon.

Anyone familiar with July’s work will be aware that she is constantly sparring with the inherent loneliness of the human condition. Whether it’s the woman who becomes fixated on a divorced shoe salesman in ‘Me and You and Everyone We Know’, or her app Somebody, that allows users to select a stranger to deliver messages for them, all of July’s art appears to be making apparent and at the same time actively fighting the innate sense of singularity that each of us lives with simply because we all exist encapsulated in our own bodies and minds.

‘The First Bad Man’ does what any good novel should do, allow a brief respite from that innate loneliness by offering an authentic piece of someone else’s private world. Whether you want to or not, you will likely see yourself inside Cheryl Glickman and feel simultaneously a sense of understanding and revulsion. July is not afraid of putting a sharp focus on the things that make us imperfect, strange, perhaps not entirely ‘good’. She also reminds us that for better or worse, sexuality defies age, gender and societal expectations. However, for all its confronting moments, the book somehow also manages to provide a good measure of sentimentality, which adds up to an emotionally honest, nuanced account of what is is to be human.

Sophie Joske


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