On a 2010 visit to New York, I attended The Artist is Present, a retrospective of the work of Marina Abramović. Making my way through all the bodies—some real and some on film, naked, bloodied, scratched, bulging with physicality—made for an unsettling experience, simultaneously sickening and ebullient. Reading Miranda July's debut novel The First Bad Man brought about a similar reaction.
July has been written off by critics as infuriatingly quirky, but really, she's made a career of excavating how women live and survive in contemporary America. Her early work, in both film and live performance, was abstract and raw; it provided a mirror for young punk feminists like myself to see themselves in her characters, who navigated dystopian, future-like territories constructed of puzzling, contradictory social interactions and a pummeling sexual subjectivity. A world where they could never just be themselves, whatever that was. And there was the body, always, the messy, sexualized, repressed female body, enmeshed in the male gaze.
The First Bad Man continues these themes, but with more finesse. Which isn't surprising, since July has amassed a mountain of award-winning books, films, online art projects, and Venice Biennale sculpture gardens since her earlier work like Miss Moviola Project, Margie Ruskie Stops Time and Love Diamond. Written when she was at the precipice of 40 and a new mother, the book finds July seemingly working out the complexities of these dual realities through her characters.
In The First Bad Man, Cheryl Glickman, the 43-year-old protagonist, has a sense being watched. The book begins as Cheryl heads to an appointment with Dr. Jens Broyard, a chromatherapy specialist who might be able to cure her Global hystericus.
"When I stopped at red lights, I kept my eyes mysteriously forward. Who is she? people might have been wondering. Who is that middle-aged woman in the blue Honda?" Cheryl thinks. She is a strange and socially awkward woman, and she's reached the age where women are tucked away as sexual creatures and handed an invisibility cloak. Much of what she imagines exists only in her head. She is self-aware to a fault, causing more repression than joy. This aggravates her Globus hystericus, an anxiety-induced lump in the throat with no apparent cause.
Cheryl has lived most of her life alone. She believes in past lives and destiny, but she has no close friends, unless Phillip Bettelheim, the rich, borderline pedophile that Cheryl crushes on, counts as a friend. She employs obsessive (and questionable) systems for keeping her house in order. "Like a rich person, I live with a full-time servant who keeps everything in order—and because the servant is me there's no invasion of privacy. At its best, my system gives me a smoother living experience. My days become dreamlike, no edges anywhere, none of the snags and snafus life is so famous for. After days and days alone it gets silky to the point where I can't feel myself anymore, it's as if I don't exist," she explains.
She's also worked for decades as a manager at a women's self-defense nonprofit that makes money selling fitness videos. Then, her New Age-y and self-absorbed Ojai-based bosses send their 20-something daughter Clee to live at Cheryl's house.
Everything in Cheryl's life is disrupted by Clee, a smelly, bad-tempered bombshell with a "blonde, tan largeness of scale." She watches TV constantly and eats foul-smelling microwave dinners between shifts at a local grocery store. She has animal appetites for junk food, men, television and physical and psychological meanness. In short, she is Cheryl's polar opposite: a woman who lives fully in her body, and in the moment.
Cheryl's life is broken open by aggressive role-playing games instigated by Clee, who calls herself a "misogynist" (she means "masochist"). July does something brave here. Rather than side-stepping or downplaying the fantasies of her middle-aged protagonist, she goes straight for the guttural, splaying out of all the gruesome and gory details of Cheryl's newly fluid and overflowing sexuality (most of which, once again, is occurring only in her head).
At the same time, it's difficult to get a read on Clee, or to see her as complex. Maybe that's the point. With her blond hair and hourglass figure, Clee has been objectified since puberty. Cheryl is disgusted, at first, by how men react to the new rude interloper in her life—until she herself, in effect, becomes one of them. "Her cowlike vacuousness didn't really bother me anymore. Or it didn't matter—her personality was just a little piece of parsley decorating warm tawny paunches," says Cheryl.
Cheryl lives almost outside of her body when we first meet her, detached to the point of pathology. But Clee, animalistic in her urges, appetites, and smells—and eventually, her ability to give birth to a child—unleashes something primal and slightly sinister in Cheryl. Until another shift occurs. An opening in Cheryl's heart, a chance at love. The book's copy describes The First Bad Man as a sort of love story. In a way, that's accurate, but mostly it's about how connection, real connection to another person, can change the course of a life. The First Bad Man, for all its missed connections and depraved fantasies, is ultimately optimistic, and a story of triumph. Of a middle-aged woman coming into her body and into love, finding connection and reality, but not in the way her original fantasies foretold.