The First Bad Man tells the story of middle-aged woman Cheryl Glickman who is made to take care of her bosses’ daughter, Clee, who invades Cheryl’s life. This forces her to adjust herself accordingly. Throughout the novel, Cheryl goes from being a stranger to Clee, to being her enemy, to being her surrogate mother, to being her lover, and ultimately back to being a stranger. The first hundred pages or so see Clee entering Cheryl’s life, at first bullying the older woman for no apparent reason, but soon the violence is converted to a Fight Club-esque therapy for the women: Cheryl and Clee begin re-enacting footage from women’s self-defense videos – Clee as the (male) assailant and Cheryl as the victim – and their fight simulations bring them closer together, though few kinds words are ever exchanged, and this odd relationship is only physical.
It only escalates from there. Cheryl soon began to blur the spectrum of human sexuality/love, flowing from transgender fantasies, to motherly love, to lesbian love, to motherly love once more, and finally to indifference toward a heterosexual relationship with a man she was looking forward to in the novel’s beginning.
To be perfectly frank, The First Bad Man is really, really weird. It’s almost uncomfortable at times, between the descriptions of Clee’s body odor, Cheryl’s many sexual fantasies and the rather unusual evolution of their relationship. But despite the in-your-face quirks, the novel has a great heart. It’s surprisingly easy to become invested in Cheryl’s account of her life.
Miranda July’s prose perfectly reflects her protagonist. At no point does Cheryl spend too much time describing objects or scenery. Instead July focuses mostly on the facts of the events, with plenty of room for her thoughts and feelings on people and objects. This is where July’s novel truly shines; readers really get a feel for who Cheryl is when she interrupts narration with information on her own weird habits that have little to do with what is presently happening. The novel is also well paced, flowing pleasantly despite the wild fluctuations in the Cheryl-Clee relationship. It’s good to see July is capable of filling almost 300 pages with one story, as the 16 tales in No One Belongs Here More Than You range from about five to 30 pages, and both of July’s movies are about 90 minutes in length.
July has outdone herself with The First Bad Man, proving she has not lost the literary talent she expressed in 2007’s short story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You. The novel can be pretty weird at times, but July’s style makes everything believable and oddly relatable. Old fans of July and alt-lit will be right at home here, and newcomers, if they come in with an open mind, should be able to find something to love about the book, too.
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