With a couple feature length films under her belt, Miranda July is no newcomer to the storytelling community. Her last two films were both written, directed and starred by herself. The Future and Me and You and Everyone We Know are both artsy films, critically pleasing, but not exactly your straightforward Hollywood affair. Her first novel is much like this as well, mashing together a massive amount of random plot elements into an intensely fantastic novel. Perhaps only July knew that mixing self defense, lesbianism, swallowing disorders and imaginary babies would make such an interesting story.
July’s The First Bad Man is a supremely bizarre novel of the first order. The story starts out with main character Cheryl Glickman. Cheryl works at a self defense firm called Open Palm. She serves in a managerial capacity, only comes to the office one day a week and is madly in love with one of Open Palm’s board members with whom she has very little contact. Cheryl’s life is turned upside down when the owners of Open Palm ask her to take in their barely legal mess of a daughter who is struggling to get her life together. Shunned off by two previous employees, the owners daughter named Clee, turns out to be a rather annoying and horrible houseguest for Cheryl. However soon their cohabitation takes a weird turn when the two start re-enacting scenes from Open Palm’s self defense video backlog. Cheryl had seen and helped make a few of these, Clee knowing them from growing up around the business. Their interactions first start as completely unchoreographed fights, but soon turn into perfect representations of what the videos show. This goes unabated for quite a while, until Clee finds out she’s pregnant and Cheryl switches her role once again to help support Clee.
The First Bad Man is a completely strange novel. Starting straightforward, it throws a few different pieces at the reader: Cheryl loves Philip, but he’s too self involved to see her. But also Cheryl has this weird thing in her throat that keeps her from swallowing without trouble. Oh yeah, don’t forget that Cheryl once bonded with a baby when she was young and looks for this phantom baby in every infant she encounters. If that isn’t compelling enough for you, rest assured that there is plenty more material from that box of oddities. However, somehow, all of these random details come together throughout the stories telling for a very cohesive tale. We start with two women, both confused with their positions in life and watch them mature and bond as they progress to a point where they find themselves comfortable with their lives.
Cheryl and Clee’s story is filled with all kinds of relationships, sex and love. Starting in a place of loneliness for both women, the journey they embark on will lead them down roads neither of them could have predicted. July explores non-traditional relationships, extreme emotions and twisted sexual fantasies. But the best part about it all is that it works so wonderfully well together. Constantly changing the outcome, both characters are left in a better place than they started, culminating in a truly great, if unlikely, love story.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10 – Miranda July is a master craftswoman to have the ability to turn such an odd set of circumstances into a truly beautiful story.