Cheryl Glickman is paranoid, neurotic, and, on the surface, an unlikely hero in any source of literature, so removed is she from the wonderfully obstinate Katniss Everdeens and precociously intelligent Hermione Grangers that the 21st century has gifted to us. Instead, Miranda July bestows us with a woman in her 40s, living alone in Los Angeles and prone to eccentric ramblings, fixated on a senior work colleague who sends her obscenely sexual texts about his very own Lolita, and suffering from globus hystericus. She has a rigid cleaning ‘system’ (‘My days become dreamlike, no edges anywhere, none of the snags and snafus that life is so famous for’), sees a therapist, and is obsessed with finding the reincarnated spirit of Kubelko Bondy, a child she cared for one day in her youth. Yet despite the bounty of oddities and curiosities that July injects into her character, she strikes a note of humanity, of relatability, of sympathy. It is this balance of Glickman’s character that prevents the novel from descending into a pretentious, irrelevant clutter, one that would be championed solely by Dunham fans & teenage Tumblr users.
Of course, it helps when Glickman’s world is full of characters equally as odd as she is: managers at the non-profit self-defence organisation where she works who are obsessed with Japanese customs & manners, an elderly paramour with a penchant for almost-legal girls, a stranger who nonchalantly gardens her home each week without her permission. The pace changes unalterably when she is forced to house her manager’s 20-year-old daughter Clee—a buxom, unhygienic, thoughtless blonde with a stubborn case of athlete’s foot—who proceeds to create a tempest in Cheryl’s established, highly ordered, and passive way of living.
What follows is an effortlessly readable pilgrimage, one which begins in bitterness and apathy and concludes with a muted flourish of love and acceptance. July cleverly adds an amusing edge to her barrel of oddities, constantly teetering between absurdity and comedy, deftly undulating between frowns and chuckles. Cheryl’s humorous sense of self-awareness is even retained throughout the scenes that are flecked with emotion (‘Was I like honey thinking it’s a small bear, not realizing the bear is just the shape of its bottle?’) , metamorphosing the novel from a strange joke into a modern tragicomedy, embracing its dramatic extravagance whilst also enforcing its humanity.
‘Dramatic extravagance’ is not too bold a phrase to apply to The First Bad Man; its world is interconnected, whereby subtle, almost unnoticed actions create ripples in its ocean, and it is difficult to determine whether things are fatalistic or coincidental. Plotlines are stretched to an almost unbearable implausibility, but they aren’t treated climactically, with facial close-ups and soaring violins. Rather, they are approached with a sense of realism; dramatic reveals are not followed by a two-page chapter on the aftermath, or a blank page disappointingly flayed with ‘x years later’. July explores life in the rubble and traces the mental and emotional labyrinth of her characters whilst maintaining their stubborn inner core; Cheryl retains her eccentric humour whilst plodding through sexual awakening, love and loss, and we are reminded that Clee is still a young, impulsive girl who has barely tasted life’s ripeness yet.
It is Miranda July’s harmonious blending between such opposing elements—the dramatic and the realistic, the tragic and the comic, the prosaic and the poetic—that makes The First Bad Man a human examination rather than pages of hollow eccentricity. The First Bad Man as a title seems ridiculous when the words are echoed by Clee as she and Cheryl ape a self-defence tutorial in which Cheryl plays the victim, yet the satisfaction arrives gradually, and once the final page is turned, like everything in July’s world, it all clicks.