I’m new to Miranda July. Her writing has been on my radar for a while but it wasn’t until late last year that I finally added her debut novel, The First Bad Man, to my TBR. I’m glad I did. It’s an enthralling story - and I say that mostly because of my reaction to it. At times I found myself repulsed by the characters and yet I was also intrigued by them. Often I felt unsure who I was supposed to be cheering for, or if that was even something I was supposed to do? And yet I felt drawn into the tiny world of this book, into the insular lives of its characters. I couldn’t put it down.
Cheryl Glickman, the protagonist of The First Bad Man, is both incredibly complex and strikingly simple. Unintentionally funny, she is a thinker, tumbling her world and the people in it through multiple levels of consideration - I can relate to the overthinking, and yet I’m still not quite sure if I actually like Cheryl.
A manager at Open Palm, a women’s self-defence non-profit, Cheryl lives a life made up of rigid systems:
‘It doesn’t have a name - I call it my system. Let’s say a person is down in the dumps, or maybe just lazy, and they stop doing the dishes. Soon the dishes are piled sky-high and it seems impossible to even clean a fork. So the person starts eating with dirty forks out of dirty dishes and this makes the person feel like a homeless person. So they stop bathing. Which makes it hard to leave the house. The person begins to throw trash anywhere and pee in cups because they’re closer to the bed. We’ve all been this person, so there is no place for judgment, but the solution is simple:
Cheryl’s adherence to these systems reads like a defence mechanism against a world she seems ill-equipped to navigate, so when her life is disrupted by a handful of situations that later reveal themselves to be loosely linked, I can’t help but feel just a little sorry for her. These disruptions include Cheryl’s crush on a man twenty-two years her senior, Phillip Bettelheim, the connection she shares with a baby from her childhood she has christened Kubelko Bondy, who she often recognises in other babies and the psychosomatic globus hystericus that forms in her throat, forcing her to spit out the saliva that pools in her mouth. But the most significant disruption comes via the overwhelming - for Cheryl at least - Clee. The daughter of her bosses, Suzanne and Carl, Clee comes to stay with Cheryl, and it is the clashing of their characters that becomes the strongest tension of the story. A tension which takes a dramatic and unexpected turn when the two women begin to re-enact the scenes of Open Palm’s self-defence DVDs.
What I find most fascinating about July’s work is that she is unafraid to draw these seemingly disastrous characters, characters who make mistakes and terrible choices, characters who frustrate you, who you’re sure you don’t like until you read the last page and realise that actually maybe you do. Her willingness to explore the fluidity of sexuality and desire is equally as compelling as her characterisation.
Miranda July is a controversial figure. It seems you either love her or hate her (there are websites dedicated to the latter) and yet there is simply no doubting her accomplishments. Her collection of short stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You, won the prestigious Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She has written, directed and starred in two films, The Future and Me and You and Everyone We Know, the latter of which won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. And yet her work is often described as whimsical or twee. In her review of The First Bad Man for The New York Times, Lauren Groff discusses this:
‘The word feels unfair, a pejorative masquerading as a descriptor — possibly because the word “whimsy” comes from the noun “whim-wham,” meaning a trinket; possibly also because it carries a connotation of capriciousness. But when you apply the word to any kind of art, it implies that the art is decorative and incompletely thought-through. Not serious, by Jove! Also true: In literary fiction, male writers who use lightness and humor, who spin wildly in the space between one sentence and the next, who push against what’s expected, are described as “wry” or “satirical” or just plain “funny.” Women are bestowed a tiny, glittering bless-her-heart tiara of “whimsy.” Reflexive condescension absolves us from serious engagement. Miranda July is a woman, and a very serious writer who is also very funny. She’s challenging. Feed “whimsy” to the birds.’
Groff nails my feelings about whimsical in relation to The First Bad Man (or really any art produced by women). Because this is a serious book. Despite the seeming impossibility of its characters, underneath the layers of eccentricity this is a story about love. About our desire to be loved, about our desire to love. It’s a book that challenges our ideas of love, of what it can be and how it can look. Cheryl, for all her faults, is not afraid to love, to experiment, to explore.
I was lucky enough to see Miranda July at the Melbourne Town Hall last month and there was something she said that stuck with me:
‘Until I made space for myself in the world, I felt like I was fighting everyday to be free.’
For the longest time I’ve struggled to call myself a writer, to own the term with any real conviction. My twitter bio still says ‘person who writes things’. I’m still not comfortable with calling myself a writer and while I am carving out that space I don’t feel there yet. I’m still fighting and maybe that pushing against my inability to claim the descriptor ‘writer’ is a part of my fight.
It feels apt for Cheryl, too. So much of her existence on these pages feels like a struggle to find that space. Maybe that’s why I don’t think this book is whimsical; because that fight is something I identify strongly with, something I feel deep within my gut. Maybe the point is that the need to create a space for yourself is an experience keenly felt and lived by women. And when you paint July and her work, this work, as whimsical, you dismiss that experience.
There is a complexity to The First Bad Man that demands contemplation; it requires you to let the characters get under your skin, let them chip away at these ideas of love and sexuality and the lives we create for ourselves. But it also requires you laugh. That’s a damn fine combination.