11 October 2014

Book Review: The First Bad Man by Miranda July

I've been away in Memphis (about which, more anon), and before that I had an extremely busy week at work, so I've fallen behind with the bookish and bloggish things.  I don't know why it's always so difficult for me to jump back in with book reviews after being gone for a couple of weeks, but it's rainy and cold outside, so I'm going to spend my day writing posts, treating myself to episodes of Gilmore Girls interspersed between the actual work.  Should be fun.

I don't usually review books months before they're published, but it's already been a month since I've read this one, and if I wait much longer, I won't be able to write a review at all.  And this book is just so damned weird that frankly, I'd be doing you all a disservice if I held off, so here you go. You're welcome.

Let me preface this by saying that I've never read Miranda July before.  I had the vague notion that perhaps her fiction was a little experimental, or that something about her books was nontraditional, but beyond that?  No firm idea.

Meet Cheryl.  She's our first person narrator of this book, and she's a little bit crazy, but mostly in a garden-variety sort of way.  She's obsessed with her coworker, Philip, and she believes that they've been locked in a great love of destiny over many centuries, but that the right moment hasn't brought them together in this lifetime yet. She also has a bizarre connection with random babies, convinced that the spirit of a person named Kubelko Bondy is trapped inside the bodies of various babies and that she must rescue, or maybe liberate Kubelko, from the parents who claim him/her as theirs.

Okay, so perhaps Cheryl's craziness is more bonafide and less garden-variety.
Cheryl is the Cheese Man equivalent in that episode of Buffy
She works from home for a company that uses pseudo-Japanese customs, and one day her bosses inform her that their daughter Clee will be coming to live with Cheryl. Neither party is happy about this, and Clee is downright abusive to Cheryl, up until the moment they decide that reenacting self-defense scenes from self-help/workout video tapes is the perfect foreplay. Foreplay that takes months to lead anywhere, I might add.

And in the meantime, Philip, Cheryl's lover-from-many-lifetimes-but-not-this-one-yet, asks for Cheryl to be the decision maker for when he and his new teenage girlfriend may consummate their relationship. Because Cheryl is so very balanced between yin and yang. Her masculine and her feminine. She is clearly the right person to arbitrate Philip's sex life. So he keeps texting Cheryl updates on their non-penetrating sexual activity while waiting for her go-ahead.

And in the other meantime, Cheryl has started having all of these outlandish and occasionally violent sexual fantasies involving almost everybody she sees.

Spoiler alert, sort of.  We learn this about 45 pages into the book, but this information would directly color your reading of the early part of the book, so here's fair warning:  Cheryl is a transgender character and is pretty marginalized among her office workers in the book. It's sometimes difficult to tell if she is marginalized among them because she's transgender or because she's really, really crazy. 

There's also a gardener, who may or may not be homeless, who had an arrangement with the previous owner of Cheryl's house, and a complicated bit about a vat of live snails. And that's all before Clee gets pregnant and has her baby. Who may or may not be another Kubelko Bondy. Really, I'm just getting started here.

This book is bizarre.  It's also really funny, but more than the funny bits and the bizarre bits, it's mostly just disturbing. Here is a sampling of some of the writing so you can get the flavor of Cheryl's narrative:

It was Rick, the homeless gardener who came with the house. I would never hire someone to lurk around my property and invade my privacy, but I couldn't think of a way to fire him when I moved in, because then he would think I was less open-minded than the previous owners, the Goldfarbs. They gave him a key; sometimes he uses the bathroom. I try to find a reason to leave before he arrives, which is not so easy at seven A. M. Sometimes I just drive around for the whole three hours until he's gone. Or I drive a few blocks away, park, and sleep in my car. Once he spotted me, on his way back to his tent or box or whatever, and pressed his smiling, stubbly face against the window. It had been hard to think of an explanation while still half-asleep (11).  
The conclusion I came to -- and it was important to come to a conclusion because you didn't want these kinds of thoughts to just go on and on with no category and no conclusion -- was that girls these days, when they weren't hugging boys unromantically, were busy being generally aggressive (42). 

Should you read The First Bad Man (which incidentally takes its name from one of the characters in the aforementioned self-defense videos)?  Sure.  But maybe in smallish doses so that the sheer absurdity doesn't overwhelm you. By the time I got to the middle of this book, I was pretty much squirming constantly and feeling uncomfortable, but I also suspect that is one of the author's intentions.

NB: This book will be published in January 2015 by Scribner, and I read an advance reader's edition that was provided at my request by the publisher. 


  1. Hmmm... I'm all for reading outside of the box, but I'm not sure this is a book for me!

    1. If I had known more of the plot going into this, I'm not sure that I would have read it, either. I'm glad I read it, as it certainly has broadened some of my reading horizons. But I'm mostly just scratching my head.

      Lena Dunham and George Saunders both loved it, and I think that explains a lot.

  2. Agghh I really liked the opening description, but I am SUPER not comfortable with a crazy transgender character. It's like the thing with making gay people predators -- it's not to say they never ARE, but because it's combating a stereotype, it's a really bad idea to write it. Slash possibly lazy/ill-thought.

    1. Yes. BUt to be fair, I would have been super uncomfortable with most of this book even if the character weren't trans. But yeah, I get what you're saying.

      Making gay characters predators? That's a thing? That's not good.

  3. I've been really curious about this book, and wow, it sounds much stranger than I was expecting!

    1. yes. but maybe if you've read MIranda July before, it wouldn't seem as strange?

  4. Huh. This book sounds like a LOT of crazy to take in.

    1. it is a lot of crazy to take in. And if it were all just haha-crazy times, that would be one thing. But this book was so disturbing that I'm still thinking about it. So, I guess that's...good?


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