The First OK Novel: On Miranda July’s ‘The First Bad Man’

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Miranda July — the visual artist, performance artist, auteur, writer of short fiction, and now, novelist — is by every indication compulsively interdisciplinary, but not unselfconsciously so. Recently in The New York Times, she praised the story collection Man vs. Nature by Diane Cook, adding, “I don’t usually say this, every single story could make a great movie. (Not that I condone adaptations or think it is necessary.)” Earlier this week, in an interview with NPR about her debut novel, The First Bad Man, July referred to the “delicate processes of making the book.” Making, not writing, as if the novel were a film or an art object.

The first sentence of The First Bad Man places us firmly within July’s cine-fictional world. It is a world made, to a large extent, of windup psychologies, bodies in motion, and disembodied voices: just think of the Beach House body-shirt dance or the cloyingly scary voice of Paw Paw the cat, both from The Future. And July wrote the new book directly after completing The Future; four years later, the reader can tell:

I drove to the doctor’s office as if I was starring in a movie Phillip was watching — windows down, hair blowing, just one hand on the wheel.

This is the voice — these are the thoughts — of Cheryl Glickman, a charming (almost winsome) if somewhat frumpy middle-aged woman who wears ugly shoes, works for a self-defense non-profit, and lives alone. From the earliest moments in Cheryl’s mind, the reader is treated to the potential for unreality. The cinematic (“as if I was starring in a movie”) and the spectatorial (“Phillip was watching”) are projected onto the mundane: a trip to the doctor’s office. This is July’s tightly ordered but messy-seeming universe, the perfect foil to the cine-fictional world of Wes Anderson, whose films are psychologically disturbed but come across as obsessively symmetrical. And, anyway, July is the better artist.

For the first half of the novel, Cheryl pines after Phillip, a perverted sexagenerian who persistently requires her approval for his own sexual indiscretions (sex with a teenager). She deals with psychosomatosis and neuroticism; zany, California-style therapy; and a manageable day job where she helps hawk workout DVDs based on women’s self-defense techniques. She has perfected a “system” of domestic living that wards off the dialectic between depression and messiness. Even if it all feels like a conventional setup, it’s not an uninviting one. Until it is.

Soon Cheryl finds herself with a house guest named Clee, a self-described misogynist and the daughter of Cheryl’s employers. Clee is trashy and brusque, Cheryl’s foil. She makes life unnecessarily tedious and perhaps dangerous. Even her initial presence recalls, perhaps intentionally, a tawdry Hollywood plot: troubled girl crashes life of complacent older woman. It is, in fact, impossible to tell whether July is appropriating cinematic cliché or falling prey to it. In either case, the meticulous (if transparently arranged) set pieces, the almost literal stages of the The First Bad Man — work office, apartment, therapist office — give way to a theater of the absurd: Clee and Cheryl engage in the “adult game” of beating the shit out of each other, in the style of Cheryl’s self-defense workout DVDs, but also in the bodies-in-motion mode of a Miranda July mid-film dance routine.

The First Bad Man’s last third is given over to another cinematic shift: into emotional depth and poignancy. There is a pregnancy. Illnesses disappear. There is real depth here, but, again, it’s impossible to tell whether the novel is a hall of cinematic mirrors or simply a vault of narcissism. It is clear that “reality,” whatever that means to the reader, is not one of the materials July employs to create her art. Or, as one character says: “Real comes and goes and isn’t very interesting.”

After finishing The First Bad Man, it became clear to me that July is cultivating an Ur-style, a narrative phenotype that applies to any artwork she makes in whatever medium. If this is your thing, if you come to The First Bad Man looking for another Miranda July feature, you will likely find yourself enamored, enthralled, in awe of July’s interdisciplinary verve, and justifiably so. If you’ve come to read a great novel, you’ll find instead a decent one.