The First Bad Man a Novel by Miranda July reviewed by Jade Sharma
WE DON’T NEED BAD MEN WHEN WE’VE GOT KOOKY CHICKS
The First Bad Man
A Novel By Miranda July
Miranda July is the master of quirky.. Quirky is a tightrope act, you risk being cheesy or falling into the surreal. Quirky is funny but not ha-ha funny.. Quirky gussies up reality with whimsy. Quirky is nothing but original. It’s the end of a fish tail sink stopper in the kitchen sink reality of literature. Quirky narratives feature main characters that are generally solitary figure. They are earnest to a fault and their clothes are a custome of the absurd. Bow-ties are quirky. Drug use isn’t. Being awkward is quirky. Being mean isn’t. Quirky is endearing. There is nothing quirky about the Holocaust, cancer, or porn. Being quirky is to be so uncool that you are pretty cool. To be quirky is to hold a child-like wonder in the face of a cynical mean world. The world of the quirky is wholly populated by the haves and the have more’s with a soundtrack of people who were indoor children, whose quiet weird music came out college dorms, never roughed in the streets. Being quirky is a narrative device that is the creation solely of the 1st world.
“Who is this middle-aged woman in the blue Honda?” July begins her novel, introducing her narrator Cheryl, as an everywoman but when July begins giving us a tour into the interior space of our narrator we find she lives in a bubble, her attempts to navigate the social world gives us more than a few cringe-worthy moments as when dealing with her bully of a roommate Clee and her crazy obsession with a man 22 years her senior, Phillip.
Cheryl's insights into the world at times feel alien, as she looks wide-eyed at the banal everyday and deconstructs to show us how exactly abused the world around is. Calling Beckett. As when Cheryl observes a soap dispenser, “Someone took a large bottle of soap and poured into this serious looking machine.” or when July keenly observes the weird ways in which women observe their bodies, as when her boss Suzanne explains to her that she is pear shaped, “This is how your body is shaped. See? Teeny tiny on top and not so tiny on the bottom’ then she explained the illusion created by wearing dark colors on the bottom and bright colors on top. when I see other women with this color combination I check to see if they’re a pear too and they always are--two pears can’t fool each other” (5)
July’s book is a book of longing, of emptiness, of wanting. July’s story is a story of an alienated woman who connects to the world in strange ways. One of the most refreshing ways that July deals with having a middle-aged childless woman is produced in Cheryl's obsession with finding Kelbelko Bondy. Cheryl is always on the search for Kebelko Bondy. Keubelko Bondy is an actual baby the narrator baby-sat for a short amount of time and felt a connection with, “I looked at him and he looked at me and I knew that he loved me more than his mother and father and that in some very real and elemental way he belonged to me. Because I was only nine it wasn’t clear if he belonged to me as a child or as a spouse” (8) As an adult Cheryl thinks of the baby, who she christened Kueblko Bonky and says: “I did see him again--again and again. Sometimes he’s a newborn, sometimes he’s already toddling along.” When Cheryl finds the spirit of Kuebelko Bondy in a baby she recognizes it right away. The telepathic conversation that ensue are oddly touching. One of the Kebelko Bondy babies peers at Cheryl and tells her, “I keep getting born to the wrong people” (13). Another urges her: “Do something. They’re taking me away” (9).. Cheryl obsessively searches every baby’s face for signs of recognition but is often met with disappointment: “as I pulled out of my parking spot I got a better look at the baby in the car next to mine. just some kid’ (9) Through absurdity July is illustrating what is at wrestling heart of a woman dealing with her ticking biological clock, which is to yearn for a connection, more than to be a mom, but to have an unmistakable tie to another human being that is fluid and transcends any one kind of love For Cheryl who has no children she has created the illusion she has many children, she just always be on the look-out for them.
At the novel starts Cheryl's obsession with Philip is already in full-swing. Cheryl is obsessed with Philip and Philip is always wearing a sweater that Cheryl always takes note of: : “grey cashmere sweater that matches his beard,’ ‘a wine-colored sweater” (2).
July’s portrayal of obsession is dead-on as in Cheryl's mind Philip is always a constant presence, “I drove to the doctor’s office as I was starring in a movie Philip was watching” (1). She rehearses not just what to say to Philip but how to look, “I practice how my face would go if Philip was in the waiting room” (1).
Cheryl's obsession with Philip is baffling. We’ve always had the experience of being completely perplexed as to why a friend is infatuated with someone who doesn’t seem all that special to us but with this information is left out all we are left Cheryl's obsession and the reality that Philip at his best is a new age kook, and at his worst: a total prick, leaves the reader apathetic and the obsession grows tiresome. This discrepancy feels lazy especially for a woman like Cheryl who has no problem sharing her seuxal fantsies in which she imagines she is Philip having sex with almost every random woman she/he meets. This is a woman who has no problem over-sharing.
July’s depiction of Cheryl's feeling of an intense connection with Philip feels genuine as when Cheryl describes how she desires to approach Philip “like a wife, as if we’d already been a couple for a hundred thousand lifetimes. Caveman and cavewomen. King and Queens” (12). Also, very realistic is the comically shit that comes out of one’s mouth such as when Cheryl repeatedly blurts out to Philip: “When in doubt, give me a shout!” After embarrassing herself, she vows to “behave so gracefully that the clumsy woman Philip had spoken with yesterday would impossible to recall. I wouldn’t use a British accent out loud, but I’d be using one in my head and it would carry over” (11)Every tiny gesture is perceived with a deep sense of meaning as when Cheryl’s bosses (who are portrayed with a network sitcom depth) unload beefalo, a hybrid of cattle and bison, onto their staff, which they have folded into white paper with each employees names on it. Cheryl and Philip’s names are called right after one and another and as Philip notices Cheryl's package is a bit larger than his own, the sexual overtones can’t be ignored as she thinks, “He gave me the meat that said Philip and I gave him the meat that said Cheryl.” (16). Cheryl is completely self-aware, that she deepens gestures with meaning that may not exist: “I’d done that before. I had added meaningful layers to things that were meaningless many, many times before (70).
July’s portrayal of Philip being a total jerk is missing the mark of humour/awkwardness that July had intended. Signs that Philip is pretty much a jerk is when “Philip pulls her towards him by the necklace,” Cheryl doesn’t perceive this as workplace sexaul harrasment but instead Cheryl decides the action is layered with irony as Philip is actually ‘mocking the kind of a man who would do something like that.” She goes on to tell us, “He’s been doing these things for years, once, during a board meeting, he insisted my blouse wasn’t zipped up in back, and then he unzipped it laughing. (7) When it feels as though Philip is actually about to confess his true feelings for Cheryl he instead drops this douchebag bombshell on her: “I have fallen in love..with a woman who is my equal in every way, who challenges me, who makes me feel, who humbles me. She is sixteen. Her name is Kirsten” (46). As Cheryl is emotionally about to jump off a bridge, Philip, being either cruel or oblivious to Cheryl's feelings, but either way totally weird, Cheryl explains how he “puts his hand on my hand. and tell her “We want your blessing.” (47). Philip explains that he finds Chery strong and stays to her: “you’re a feminist and you live alone, and she agreed we should wait until we got your take on it” (47). If there is anything that could put a woman in the bell jar it’s probably hearing a man you’re obsessed with tell you he admires you for how you live alone, after he’s told you how in love he is with a 16 year old.
Philip then goes on to explain how Cheryl's androgynous nature is the reason he looks up to her. “I told her (KIrsten) how perfectly balanced you are in terms of your masculine and feminine energies.” This ability for Cheryl to be able to “ see things from a man’s point of view, but without being clouded by yang” (47) is why he is asks her advice.
With Cheryl's obsession still in full blown and Philip’s being as weird as ever. We are left with this bizarre exchange:
“Our history was behind on us, a hundred lifetimes of making love” (47)
This passage concludes like this:
We have no elders,” he moaned. “no one to guide us. Will you guide us?”
“But I’m younger than you.”
“Perhaps” “NO, I am. I am twenty-two years younger than you” (48).
July touches on this idea of the single middle-aged woman as having some spiritual value in our society, as when her boss Carl called her a ginjo which is japanese for ‘a man, usually an elderly man, who lives in isolation while keeps the fire burning for the whole village’ (19).
The new-age kookiness that July thankfully doesn’t get into is what prompts Cheryl so see the “chromologist” (if you are me you will spend an embarrassingly number of pages mis reading chromologist for chemotologist and finding yourself feeling bad for Philip). Dr. Boynard, who works three days a year, concludes she has Globus sytericious? And the cure is 30 milliliters of the essence of red (Again, weird for the sake of being weird). There are moments where you want to feel the layers of meaning July has pinned on but instead the narrative falls flat, feels trying, like a dream, sometimes, just because something is weird doesn’t mean it’s interesting.
When Clee is introduced in the novel, we finally have a character who doesn’t feel as though she was written as a clever sketch of a character in a notebook. Clee is alive. She jumps off the pages. From her fungus-invested feet to her bratty attitude to her sofa bound, jugging sodas, with the television on 24/7 she is scene stealer.
Clee, Cheryl’s bosses’ aimless daughter who they are under the impression or denial that she is an aspiring actresses. Clee is predictably, after being bogged off by co-worker’s shows up at Cheryl's house. Cheryl’s misanthropic disposition reveals itself when she’s asked to house Clee: “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 by other people and so one more won’t matter” (19). But Clee ends up moving in anyway which creates perhaps, the oddest, odd couple routine, their disdain for one another evolves into their own secret fight club. Cheryl’s who can’t help but smiling all day long after wrestling with Clee, which is like Gaitskill's ‘Secretary,’ finds a release in the world of Sadomasochism. Another pertitant quote of Cheryl comes to mind: “imitating crass people was kind of liberating--like pretending to be a child or a crazy person” (7).
Clee’s harshness is hysterical, as she says to Cheryl: “one half of your face is way older and uglier than the other half. The pores are all big and it’s like your eyelid is starting to fall into your eye. I’m not saying the other side looks good, but if both sides were lke your left side people would think you were seventy (80)
Clee is not just is cruel but messes with Cheryl system that have been in the making for years, “Let’s say a person is down in the dumps, or maybe just lazy, and they stop doing the dishes. soon the dishes are piled sky-high and it seems impossible to even clean a fork. So the person starts eating with dirty forks out of dirty dishes and this makes the person feel like a homeless person. so they stop bathing. Which makes it hard to leave the house. The person begins to throw trash anyway and pee in cups because/c they’re close to the bed. We’all been this person, so there is no place for judgment, but the solution is simple:
The other solution: stop moving things around ie. ‘Can’t you read the book standing right next to the shelf with your finger holding the spot you’ll put it back into? Or better yet: don’t read at all.”
At one point when Cheryl feels as though they are sharing a moment, Clee corrects her, “You thought i was laughing about the pan?...I was laughing because--you’re so sad. Sooo. Saad.”
The only time Cheryl stands up for herself is after Philip rejects her. She comes home and demands to Clee: “You need to get your act together and start looking for a job. This couch isn’t meant to be used as a bed. You need to flip the cushions so they don’t get permanently misshaped” (49).
It is after this exchange their first “fight” occurs: “The crook of her arm caught my neck and jerked me backward. I slammed into the couch--the wind knocked out of me. Before I could get my balance she shoved my hip down with her knee. I grabbed at the air stupidly. She pinned my shoulders down, intently watching what the panic was going to my face. Then she suddenly let go and walked away.” (50)
Philip-fuckng 16 year old and Clee attacked her:
“I peed in cups and knocked over one of the cups and didn’t clean it up (51)
“if possible, please donate the thirty minutes to someone who can’t afford therapy” (54)
Cheryl sees Ruth-Anne Tibbets for counsel. She recognizes Tibbet’s as Dr. Boynard’s receptionist the three days a year he works there. When Cheryl confronts her as being a fraud the explanation turns out to be far more bizarre Tibbets was the receptionist but also acts as Dr. Boynard’s receptions. Tibbets’ doesn’t do it for the money: “Three days a year I take on a submissive role. It’s a game we like to play, an immensely satisfying adult game.” (63)
Cheryl tries to offer Clee a gift to start off what she hopes will be an immensely satisfying adult game but Clee rejects it, saying, “I appreciate the gift but I’m not...you know. I’m into dick” (75). But the fighting continues and Cheryl is at her best in this part of the book until she finds out that Clee is pregnant. She is heartbroken. She quietly contemplates: “Were there many ways to get pregnant? not really.” (133)]
The real intimacy and bond in this novel is not between Philip and Cheryl and it begins but is actually between Clee and Cheryl. From the time that she sets sight on Clee, sofa-bound, with her feet reeking, this it the first time we see and feel any kind of intense emotional reaction from Cheryl which is then acting out during their ‘fight club’ scene. The tie-in for both Cheryl and Clee is that Cheryl's bosses who are Clee’s parents ran a studio that taught self-defense classes for women, so both women are often times accoutrements such the self-defense videos the company produced and the pummel outfits were by the men (which are doned by Clee). The physical release is the only source of intimacy for Cheryl. Where she was seeking a more conventional relationship with Philip, he soon is an extra in the novel, and the crux of the novel is the relationship between Clee and Cheryl.
After Clee becomes pregnant, true to her nature, she not cut from maternal cloth. This is where Cheryl steps up and helps Clee through her difficult childbirth and through the touch and go first day’s of the infant who they Clee wants to name, “little fatty,’ but Cheryl decides to go with Jack. The troubled first days of Jack’s life is one that July’s writes touchingly, as is the bond between the two women, “we were gripping each other hands between the folds of our white hospital gowns-- a small hard brain formed by our interlocking white knuckles” 169) As the baby is in critically stable, with tubes inserted in it’s tiny body, Chery realizes Jack is Kelbelko Bondy. The most touching scene of the novel is when Cheryl telepathically tries to will Jack/Kelbelko Bondy into giving life on Earth a chance: Try not base your decision on this room, it isn't representative of the whole world. Somewhere the sun is hot an a rubbery leave, clouds are making shapes and shaping and reshaping, spider web is broken but still works. And in case he wasn’t into nature I added: and it’s a really wild time in terms of technology. You’ll probably have a robot and will be normal.” Cheryl then forgives Jack if he decides he doesn’t want try life out, “Of course, there’s no ‘right choice. If you choose death I won’t be mad. I’ve wanted to choose it myself a few times.” Cheryl, not willing to indulge the idea of the baby not making it, as his eyes peer up to her, she back-peddles, “Forget what I just said. You’re already a part of this. You will eat, you will laugh at stupid things, you will stay up all night just to see what it feels like, you will fall painfully in love, you have babies of your own, you will doubt and regret and yearn and keep a secret. You will get old and decrepit,and you will die, exhausted from all that living. That’s when you get to die. Not now” (173). To read Cheryl give such an affirmation of life is immensely powerful. For most of the novel it seems she wasn’t living much of a life. It was only through Clee, Cheryl speaks of the evolution of their relationship, “I’d been her enmy, then her mother, then her girfriend. That was three lifetimes right there.” These realtionship with Clee is what transformed into someone who is on the side of life. As the baby grows stronger, Cheryl finds she is up for the job of being her guardian.
The last unneeded twist of the novel is when Philip swings back into the picture. If this were a movie I would assume the producers lacked funds to have more than a few actors and that’s what accounted for Philip’s presence but it’s not it’s a book and it’s bad choice. First off, Cheryl and Philip non-existent relationship was never central to the novel and the most interesting parts where in Cheryl’s own hand and second, although July does the heavy lifting of how Clee and Philip meet (Cheryl recommends Dr. Boynard for her feet fungus who was recommended by her by Philip) in Dr. Boynard’s waiting room, it still feels forced and still more forced that this chance encounter would end of the two of them having sex and neither of them telling Cheryl and that this fling would result in a baby. July is normally more scatterbrained, which is endearing, then to go to soap opera land to pile on the drama, which it actually doesn’t as we have long forgotten or cared about Philip. 3) As true to Philip’s shit-head nature he ends up crashing, having a one-night stand with Cheryl, and then deems he just doesn’t feel a connection with Philip and takes off. The only point of bringing Philip back around would have been to show the transformed Cheryl, who is now stronger through her relationship with Clee, and the strength of love she feels towards Jack, and tell Philip to go fly a kite. The fact that she still defers to him is painfully and brings Cheryl back about 100 pages in the novel.
July’s novel is uneven but worth reading. It would easy to break it apart and easier to love it because it’s fun. As a professor once told me, “in the end, you can choose whether you like a book and make a pretty fine argument either way,’ thus negating the entire idea of academia, but he is of course, has a solid point. We love things that are imperfect. Flaws in the narrative, and the Philip parts that lag, and the unnecessary Dr. Boynard, and globus hystericus, are worth it when July gets it right. July’s maturing as a writer. Her first book felt more like something she did in the afternoon, after she decided it would be fun to write a book the way retired people think it’s fun to take up painting but here is something different. There is real feeling, behind the quirks, and gimmicks, and weird for the sake of weird. Being quirky, as Wes Anderson, has shown us, when done right, is an aesthetic that doesn’t get in the way of an emotional connection. As all characters in the world of the quirky are underdeveloped emotional, and yearning for a connection. The connections that Cheryl makes in the novel aren't the conventional ones we’ve seen a million times in Hollywood. They are the connections of a stunted personality who literally needed to be punched in the face to feel something again.