Kafka with a Happy Ending
The First Bad Man
By Miranda July
Early in Miranda July’s first novel, The First Bad Man, Cheryl Glickman, a forty-three year old woman who relies on a set of rituals to hold her barely functional, isolated existence together, has a darkly humorous conversation with a man named Phil Bettelheim. Phil asks her about age differences in relationships, and Cheryl imagines the older man may be about to confess his feelings.
But The First Bad Man is not a typical first novel; and July is not a typical first time novelist. A kind of cult figure for the two films she wrote, directed and starred in, Me You and Everyone We Know and The Future, as well as her earlier collection of short stories and artistic experiments, July thrives when the boundaries between fantasy and reality, between normalcy and defiance break down. They certainly aren’t about to be resolved by a breezy discussion of the “half your age plus seven” rule:
“The vast majority of people will be so young or so old that their lifetime won’t even overlap with one’s own — and those people are out of bounds.”
“On so many levels.”
“Right. So if a person happens to be born in the tiny speck of your lifetime, why quibble over mere years? It’s almost blasphemous.”
Phil is Cheryl’s co-worker at Open Palm, a self-defence organization with a line of instructional videos that later serve as the template for some truly funny sexual role-playing. The “First Bad Man” of the novel’s title is how another character refers to the attacker in one of them. Phil himself is, we immediately sense, also not the best of men; his cosmic theory turns out to be exactly what a cynic would suppose: a prelude to asking Cheryl’s “permission” to pursue a sixteen year old who may or may not exist. But it also tells us something about the way age and, by extension, time, work in the novel. For July, the idea that any two people might be able to connect is always improbable and miraculous. In July’s 2011 film The Future, there’s a moment when we see the young daughters of the protagonist’s friend suddenly and inexplicably grown: it’s like the whole experiment of Boyhood contained in a single frame. Similarly, the fantasies that animate Cheryl’s inner life — her belief that she and Phillip have known each other over many lifetimes, her search for the spirit of the baby she has envisioned since childhood — are about something we have to reach outside realism to get to: the belief in time as something other than the narrowly defining linear thing that it is.
It seems fitting, then, that although The First Bad Man is in part a novel about the approach of middle age, it’s one that resolutely refuses to play by the rules. Cheryl’s neurotic isolation at the start of the book is no mere quirk. The “system” she describes for ordering her household (never use dishes if at all possible, always carry something with you from room to room) and the will it takes her to face the world reminded me of some of Kafka’s short pieces. “To rouse oneself from a state of misery should be an easy matter, even with borrowed energy” he writes in “Resolutions,” a one-page story that ends with a very July-like meditation on how such a body might comfort itself: “A characteristic motion accompanying such a condition is to smooth one’s eyebrows with one’s little finger.”
Tellingly, Cheryl’s her isolation is first punctured not by romance or motherhood but by the arrival of Clee, the sullen and casually cruel daughter of one of Cheryl’s co-workers. What if, the novel seems to ask, when the object of one’s affections asked your permission to pursue another much younger woman, you granted it and then imagined yourself to be him in their encounters? What if you went out and got a younger woman all your own, a woman who turns from rival to partner in a series of unambiguously kinky but amorphous games, and then to surrogate child, and then as the mother of the child that became yours? As if in a reversal of Woolf’s Orlando, Cheryl becomes someone outside the “normal” boundaries of gender, age and subjectivity. It is, as Woolf says of Orlando, “a most bewildering and whirligig state of mind to be in. The comforts of ignorance seemed utterly denied to her. She was feather blown on the gale.” July toys with the possibility that Cheryl could beat the system Orlando exposes: “Anyone who questions what satisfaction can be gained from a not-so-bright girlfriend half one’s age has never had one,” Cheryl reports when her romance with Clee hits a high note. “It just feels good all over. It’s like wearing something beautiful and eating something delicious at the same time, all the time.” The high won’t last, of course, but middle-age looks different when our minds allow us to seduce and even become our rivals as well as envy them.July’s reputation as a doe-eyed indie innocent is misleading in any number of ways, not the least of which is that you can easily miss how kinky much of her work has been up until this point. In “Something that Needs Nothing,” a story from July’s first book, the narrator, pining for a female friend, is surprised to find that her stint in a strip club goes well. “I had once believed in a precious inner self, but now I didn’t. I had thought I was fragile, but I wasn’t. It was like suddenly being good at sports.” There’s little mistaking it here, however. Like Mary Gaitskill, July uses S&M and sexual fantasies along with the power dynamics of age and gender as a way to show that, although sex may no longer represent the lure of the forbidden, it is still destabilizing — not to any social order, but to our sense of self. If novels of adultery have long since lost their once animating charge — the idea that sex could destroy a life as well as save it — the fantasies Gaitskill and July explore retain their power not because they are shocking but because they are so specific. “Think about your thing,” Cheryl imagines a lover telling her. The fantasy is not that another could satisfy your desires but that he or she might accept or witness your inevitably private pleasures.
In addition to being a novel about midlife, The First Bad Man is also a novel about motherhood. The novel’s blurring of sexual and maternal fantasies are not so much about taboos as they are about the primal nature of what are still, inevitably, two of our most fundamental ways of upending our lives, of reordering one’s sense of time and being, self and other. Along the way, she delivers the best description that I’ve read of the state of suspended animation and breathless wonder that accompanies the exhaustion of early motherhood:
Clee asked if he could see in the dark like a cat and I said yes. Later I caught my mistake but it was five A.M. and she was asleep. The next day I forgot. Each day I forgot to tell her he couldn’t see in the dark like a cat and each night I remembered, with increasing urgency. What if this continued for years and I never told her? My body was so tired that it often floated next to me or above me, and I had to reel it in like a kite. Finally one night I wrote “He can’t see in the dark” on a slip of paper and put it by her sleeping face.
Motherhood is, in July’s rendering, surreal, fantastic and disordering. “A howl was curdling inside me; the ache felt inhuman. Or maybe this was my first human feeling.” It is particularly ironic, then, that in his Washington Post review, Daryll Wellington writes, “Cheryl is proactive only in her fantasy life, which revolves around a dream of encountering a magical child mysteriously named Kubelko Bondy. It’s a sad commentary that a modern woman’s hope for lasting happiness centers on the sentimental 1950s ideal of a ‘perfect” baby,’ as if the reproduction and nurturing of human life came to briefly, through some quirk of ideology, to be of emotional importance for one decade only.”
Fortunately for us, Cheryl’s imagination — and, by extension, July’s — is the opposite of what Wellington describes. It’s in tune with a particular place and time — the New Agey but anxious Los Angeles of the semi-affluent — but also endlessly surprising. Like Woolf, July is interested not so much in what happens as in how the happening happens, the way our minds and bodies at any given moment contain our fantasies, fears, and memories.
But rather than giving us the full fire hose of associations a la David Foster Wallace, July follows the thought just a half step beyond where most writers would. When Cheryl’s therapist expels her and demands instant payment, she pulls out her last few dollars, “including both halves of a dollar bill that I had been meaning to tape together for a few years.” “You can keep that one,” the therapist replies. When she struggles to care for the baby and fears losing him, she notes, “For the first time in my life I understood TV, why everyone watched it. It helped. Not in the long run, of course, but minute by minute.” Images of heartbreaking paralysis, no doubt, but also ones that give more insight into the therapeutic encounter and new parenthood in a single line than countless other whole novels have managed to do.
“Real comes and goes and isn’t very interesting,” Cheryl’s therapist tells her at one point. It’s a close as July comes to announcing her aims. As the film critic Andrew O’Hehir has written, the main thing that all the descriptions of July as precious or “twee” get wrong is that her work is “absolutely not the work of some indie stylist enmeshed in film-school games of homage and influence.” It’s why her obsessions carry over so seamlessly from film to the novel to the short stories in No One Here Belongs Here More than You and the brilliant little book It Choose You, an accidental L.A. ethnography in which July serves as an existential Studs Terkel, interviewing people she meets through their ads in the Penny Saver.
The First Bad Man plays with the tools of surrealism and magical realism, and inverts our expectations about its characters, but we never feel July is responding to another work, or seeking to “correct” earlier images of aging, female sexuality, or motherhood. She’s not “responding” to some tradition or aesthetic, or to anything except for the strangeness of being alive. What is most remarkable is that, seemingly against all odds, Cheryl emerges from her defenses into a life connected to the outside world, without the novel losing any of its cool intelligence and devastating particularity. Unlike the ironists, July never distances herself from what she’s doing. She risks being seen as pretentious. And you can choose to see it that way. Or you can let the boundaries dissolve, and think, maybe this has something to do with me, just a little bit.
Laura Tanenbaum is an Associate Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York, where she teaches literature, composition and creative writing. Her writing has appeared in the Jacobin, Narrative Magazine, The Sixties, failbetter and other publications. She blogs at goldennotebooks.blogspot.com.