Miranda July has written award winning short fiction, and is an actor, performer, director, artist and "The First Bad Man" is her debut novel. In this strange fable, our narrator is Cheryl Glickman, a 43 year old woman who has worked for years at "Open Palm" a not-for-profit that develops self-defence courses for women. She appears to be that member of staff who has been there forever, who appears to run the place, but has been overlooked for management or other senior roles - yet nobody can imagine the place without her. Yet at 43, she lives alone in a spartan apartment where she cuts down on washing up by only ever having one cup, one plate.
When Clee, the difficult teenage daughter of the owners of "Open Palm", the vile Carl and Suzanne, comes to stay with Cheryl it creates a rupture in the ordered, insular, self-obsessed life she has created for herself. Cheryl's narration is highly unreliable, and we never quite get under her skin. She has a fantasy about the ageing lothario on the company board, Phillip, and wherever she goes she is looking for phantom children, who she names as Kubelko Bondy. Even through her own narration she comes across as lonely, caring, vindictive, and envious of the world - someone who has let life pass her by without knowing quite how or why. Clee original stays with another staff member but then moves in with Cheryl. She accepts it, as she accepts everything that her bosses put her way, but she also resents this imposition on her life, in her one bedroom apartment.
Clee is as archetypal a teenager as Zappa's "Valley Girl" and has a shadowy life she keeps from Cheryl. At some point their non-verbal communication ends up with them playing out the scenarios from old VHS tapes created by the women's self defence programme that is "Open Palm's" main "product." These scenes of unexpected violence are described in detail but without much commentary. This odd, abnormal world is always played deadpan. "The First Bad Man" of the title is one of these scenarios. I'm not sure it works as the novel's title, too loaded, perhaps.
At some point we find that Clee is pregnant and the novel steps up a gear, with the difficult pregnancy, birth and aftermath, with a poorly baby, bringing Cheryl and Clee closer together and briefly in love with each other. As she says later in the book, she moves from guardian figure, to mother figure, to lover. Yet never are they genuinely friends - rather these are two lost women who are brought together by that most unexpected thing, a baby that one of them was going to give up for adoption. This sense of loneliness, followed by hope, followed by the conflicting thoughts of what a baby means - how the "mother" is the person who looks after him day in, day out, whatever the absurdity of the family situation. Cheryl is open to love - with Clee, with the ageing Phillip, with baby Jack - but holds it back, is uncertain when it arrives, thinks it is about to be withdrawn. In many ways her character doesn't change - even though she's only 43, she seems much older, stuck in a tiny tableau within the big city.
The novel starts with her going to see a psychiatrist, and these scenes turn out to be pivotal to the little bit of plot there is. The strange psychiatrist's waiting room, where the receptionist - for 3 days a year - is the psychiatrist the rest of the time is an absurdity, I'm reminded of the quack doctor in "30 Rock" for instance. Yet in this waiting room of the trusted psychiatrist the various trysts in the novel are played out, like a contemporary village square.
There are some profound moments in "The First Bad Man", and the book is more absurd than laugh out loud funny, yet I struggled with it. It did feel overlong for the source material, a series of episodes to keep the momentum going, with the insularity of this small group of absurdist characters more like the screenplay for an indie movie than anything else. It certainly feels very zeitgeist-y, and there's even a quote from Lena Dunham on the cover, but whereas it might seem to be in the same territory as A.M. Homes' "This Book Can Save Your Life" it's canvas is more miniaturist, to that book's weaving of an equally small cast into a much larger scenario. Part of the problem for me was that despite being pretty grounded in its world, everything is done ironically. This doesn't feel like a real company, or a real flat, or even a real psychiatrist, and its not just Cheryl's filtered vision. The book was highly recommended to me, and I can see that its strangeness and absurdist vision could be compelling, but I got bored a little too often, found the writing elegant but flat, and the humour was of a very droll kind. Having not read her short stories I can't compare, but it did feel that the material was stretched out, that this kind of world works better in shorter form. Its far from being a bad book, and the central conceit - that love can be unexpected and appear anywhere - is neither sentimentalised or laughed away. A short epilogue - a mistake I think - leaves you with the knowledge that things turn out okay, but it reminded me of a lesser Coen Brothers movie, absurd for absurd's sake, nothing much existing beyond the screen (or in this case the page.) As someone who enjoys surface, (and enjoyed the equally self-contained "Leaving the Atocha Station" for instance), it surprised me how much effort this book took me to read - I think something about the prose style just made me weary. Maybe just one of those "not for me" books.
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