BOOK REVIEW: The First Bad Man

 The First Bad Man by Miranda July is out Out 19 February from Canongate, £12.99 paperback and e-book

Miranda July marches to a drummer playing an unorthox beat. In 2007, No One Belongs Here More than You, earned her a legion of enthusiastic fans – myself included – and won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. This is her first novel, but writing is only one of July’s talents. Her CV includes artist, filmmaker, actress, singer-songwriter, AP inventor, and general rabble rouser of creative endeavours, as in her participatory art project Learning to Love You More.

The First Bad Man is decidedly odd and as always, with July’s work, there is an urge to whisper the word “affectation”, with a question mark following. Is she the embodiment of the nightmarish “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” (as defined by Nathan Rabin)? She certainly polarises opinion: people are with her or against her; they’re rarely neutral. I’m with her, but feel propelled back from the weird, now and again, which may be why I loved the short stories to distraction and found the novel harder going, though I’m very glad I went.

Cheryl is a single, middle-aged woman with a steady job affording her economic security. She lives modestly and eccentrically, though much of what’s peculiar about her exists inside her head. Chief among a lengthy roster of quirks is her ongoing search for the baby she “lost”, age nine, named Kubelko Bondy. She believes that the child’s soul migrates through the bodies of other babies with whom she feels a connection. Cheryl also suffers from a permanent and debilitating lump in her throat, which makes expressing emotion impossible.

This partly explains why, despite working for a company that teaches female self-defense and empowerment, Cheryl is bullied into providing a home for her employers’ adult daughter, Clee. This sets us up for a classic Stranger Comes to Town and Changes Everyone story, providing Cheryl a chance to flounder or flourish in extremis.

Clee is monstrous. She may look like Scarlet Johannson (or so July admitted in an interview), but she is obtuse and uncommunicative, taking root on the sofa and stinking up the joint with unhygienic feet.

At the same time, Cheryl becomes agony aunt to the man she fancies, sixty-something Phillip, who wants her permission to have sex with a sixteen year old girl. Claiming he’ll wait for her to green light the statutory rape, he sends her regular text messages charting his progress [“KIRSTEN WANTS YOUR PERMISSION TO DO ORAL. NO PRESSURE. STANDING BY UNTIL YOUR GO-AHEAD”] and asking for absolution.

Life with Clee turns dangerously, distressingly violent, and then violence tips into role-playing, activating Cheryl’s erotic impulses. She imagines sex every which way but tender with the younger woman – but always (and this is interesting) as if she had a penis. They are aggressive fantasies, often negating Clee’s consent, and it’s worth wondering whether this is a message about the essentially aggressive nature of men (or mankind), or whether’s July sees this as the natural outcome of nightly fistfights.

To cope with these and other problems, Cheryl turns to two therapists – one works with colour, the other practices more traditional talk therapy – and discovers that they are also enmeshed in a complicated and unsavory relationship.

When Clee falls pregnant, Cheryl cheerfully bears the brunt of the responsibility not only for her, but for the child, James, who arrives prematurely and hovers between life and death.

Yes, it’s a highly complicated story, when you try to precis it, but the internal logic of this world holds up when you’re inside the book.

Nevertheless, I nearly abandoned the novel, because I found Cheryl difficult to be with and the violence disturbing, not least because it springs out of nowhere, and is so one-sided. But then Cheryl levels the playing field somewhat by orchestrating the nightly scenarios, and they become an elaborate S&M ritual of unrealised desire. It wasn’t titillating, but it renewed my curiosity abut where the narrative would go next.

July spends a lot of time on body fluids: the gallons of semen she imaginatively spews across and into Clee’s body, lactation, and tremendous emphasis on what Patti Smith called the “transformation of waste”. Cheryl ponders the deep sadness of peeing into cups “because they’re closer to the bed”, and then meets a therapist who voids into Chinese takeaway containers she then stacks alongside her desk, because her office is too far from the toilet. It’s not the only clue that the healer needs healing, and Cheryl being Cheryl, she is quickly enmeshed.

For all her peculiarities, Cheryl’s not without insight and there’s a poignancy to her observations. Early in the novel she says, “We all think we might be terrible people. But we only reveal this before we ask someone to love us. It is a kind of undressing.”

I enjoyed this, as well: “When you live alone people are always thinking they can stay with you, when the opposite is true: who they should stay with is a person whose situation is already messed up by other people and so one more won’t matter.”

Very late in the novel July produces a clutch of sentences that are close to perfect: “Every day I melted a milk icicle and watched Jack drink what Clee had pumped exactly one month earlier, each bottle labeled with a date. First he drank the day we made love; he gulped it all down. He drank the day we showed him off at Ralph’s. He drank the cotton-candy milk from the day at the pier. The last batch was from the morning she left and this milk was full of plans I didn’t know about. When he finished that bottle she was really gone, every last drop of her.”

What Cheryl wants – what we all want – is someone to pour her love into. With the arrival of a genuine “Kubelko”, that wish is finally granted, and her love for the child gives the last section of the book emotional depth. July has a potent way of underscoring what a magical time it is, the beginning of a life.

All in all, a far from easy read, but a rewarding one.

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