Cheryl Glickman, the middle-aged heroine of Miranda July’s debut novel The First Bad Man, has a serious case of anxiety and is willing to try almost anything to make it go away. We find her in the opening pages of the book receiving chromotherapy (what amounts to drinking red food coloring) from a doctor who suggests she try a more traditional kind of therapy, which she agrees to but internally rejects.
“I didn’t explain that I was single. Therapy is for couples. So is Christmas. So is camping. So is beach camping.”
Most of “The First Bad Man” is told from the perspective of Cheryl’s chaotic mind, and is packed with these strange but wonderful associations. Because she lives alone, her house acts as a physical manifestation of her neurotic mind; to save time food is eaten from the pan, things are rarely moved from their place, cups are placed near the bed and replace the function of a toilet.
Cheryl works for Open Palm, a woman’s self defense company that champions self-empowerment, but ironically is often used by others. When the couple who owns the company pressure her into temporarily taking in their unruly 21-year-old daughter, Clee agrees free of charge.
The inclusion of Clee into Cheryl’s normally isolated world changes everything. The former preys on the vulnerably of the latter, and what develops is a relationship physically abusive, sexual, but essential for each.
July’s aesthetic is often criticized for being unnecessarily quirky. She’s the literary world’s equivalent of Zooey Deschanel, or an indie band who prefers ukulele to electric guitar. “The First Bad Man” does not read this way because Cheryl’s internal narration is honest and instantly relatable. She is uncertain, paranoid, and lonely in a world that insists these traits are abnormal—a world that is our own.
One of the book’s best narrative threads is the appearance of an imagined soul mate baby by the name of Kubelko Bondy, who Cheryl first meets as a child and is able to communicate with telepathically. This baby takes the form of various infants throughout the novel, and when the baby’s life is in danger the reader is provided with painfully beautiful passages like this one:
“You will eat, you will laugh at stupid things, you will stay up all night just to see what it feels like, 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 is when you get to die. Not now.”
There isn’t much July hasn’t tried her hand at. She’s done performance art, made movies (Me And You And Everyone We Know, The Future), written a short story collection (No One Belongs Here More Than You), and is seemingly always involved in some kind of creative project (sculpting, internet chain letter, app). This might be her debut novel, but July is certainly not an emerging voice. On the contrary—she is an established artist who is continuously honing her craft. “The First Bad Man” might put off readers who are hesitant to enter Cheryl’s bizarre mind, but give it a chance and you will never want to leave.
The First Bad Man is published by Scribner, and retails for $25.00.