[I received a copy of The First Bad Man by Miranda July from its Canadian publisher Simon & Schuster Canada. This does not affect my review of the novel.]
Have you ever watched an artsy film that was at once complex, confusing, yet beautiful? Have you ever been mesmerized by something you couldn’t quite understand yet yearned to learn more of? That’s how I felt when reading filmmaker, artist, and bestselling author Miranda July’s The First Bad Man.
Perhaps knowing that July is a filmmaker pushed me towards feeling this way, but as I read The First Bad Man I couldn’t help but be pulled by its imagery and deep inner world and see it as a film. Its main character Cheryl Glickman is one of the most complicated narrators I’ve read in a long time, and with each page I felt like I could see her version of the world but, at the same time, feel detached from it.
But before I get into that, I should probably tell you what this book is about. Cheryl is a middle-aged woman with a steady job and an immaculately neat house. She is unmarried but secretly fantasizes about Philip, whom she knows through work. She also has a condition called Globus hystericus, or, as the book’s back cover puts it, “a perpetual lump in her throat.” But this is not the only odd thing about Cheryl; she constantly sees a boy she calls Kubelko Bondy reincarnated in babies, seeks out chromotherapy, and has a very complicated relationship with her sexuality. When Cheryl is forced to share her private space – her home – with another, she is also forced to face some of her neuroses head on.
I won’t lie: it took me a while to get a feel for this book. Cheryl is so odd that it can be disorienting to be in her head. Told in first person, July doesn’t hold back when it comes to sharing Cheryl’s deepest, darkest feelings and fantasies, making this a sometimes-uncomfortable but very intimate read. But even though it does take a while for the reader to become situated in Cheryl’s world, I think her character (and, ultimately, this book) is an important piece of literature. I recently read an article with Gillian Flynn, bestselling author of Gone Girl, where she defends her character Amy Dunne and the implications that come with Amy’s actions. She says, “…the one thing that really frustrates me is this idea that women are innately good, innately nurturing. In literature, they can be dismissably bad – trampy, vampy, bitchy types – but there’s still a big pushback against the idea that women can be just pragmatically evil, bad and selfish.” While July’s Cheryl isn’t what I would call evil, bad, or selfish, Flynn brings up a point that really resonated with me: let’s show more sides of women in literature, whether they be good, evil, or incredibly complicated. For me, The First Bad Man shines in its portrayal of a unique, individual woman. I admire July for writing a female character that I could somewhat relate to but also feel unsettled by. We are not made from cookie cutters; why should our heroines be that way?
So, while I’ll admit that this probably isn’t one of my top ten favourite books, I do value its place in contemporary literature and celebrate it for its ability to create a unique, un-sugar coated female voice.
Verdict: An odd read, but one that I have come to admire for its fiercely unique character and interesting story. Special mention to the Epilogue, which I especially loved.
Read if: You want to read a book with extremely vivid writing, want to experience a complicated and uncensored female voice, want to know what/who the book is referring to as the First Bad Man.
Are you a fan of Miranda July? Have you read The First Bad Man or any of her other stories?