Review: ‘The First Bad Man’ by Miranda July

The First Bad Man. Miranda July. Scribner. 288 pages. $25.
The First Bad Man. Miranda July. Scribner. 288 pages. $25.

Love comes in a dizzying number of shapes and sizes, Miranda July demonstrates in her stunning first novel. An artist who works in a wide mix of media — quirky short videos, an award-winning feature film, art installations, prizewinning short stories — July also deals in mixed emotions. She brings all these elements to play in the story of awkward, withdrawn Cheryl Glickman’s search for love.

Rushing into middle age, Cheryl obsesses over a baby she’s been in love with since she was nine; she remembers his name as Kubelko Bondy. She’s still looking for him, auditioning every baby she meets. Even she can’t tell you whether she wants to find love with the adult Kubelko or replace him. Years have passed, but Cheryl believes in transmigration of souls and loves that repeat over centuries — hers, the baby’s, her 60something friend Phillip’s.

Will she and Kubelko Bondy know each other when they meet again? Will they be adult lovers or mother and son forever? Cheryl doesn’t know, any more than she knows why Phillip Bettelheim, a board member at her self-defense/life-lessons agency, is so elusive, when she knows their romance is fated. He has a terrible secret. They have to talk, just not right now; they make a date.

She can’t wait. She loves the guy! She thinks.

Amorphous sexual fantasies aside, Cheryl keeps her life neat: Own only the dishes you use in a day. Curb your décor. Avoid messes. “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.”

And she’s seeing a specialist about her “globus.” An immovable lump in the throat.

Enter voluptuous, messy Clee, her bosses’ daughter, fobbed off on Cheryl because her parents have had enough. Cheryl goes a little nuts cleaning house for a timid adolescent, but she opens her door to a woman. “So much a woman that for a moment I wasn’t sure what I was.” Clee ignores Cheryl’s neat guest room and camps out on the sofa, smelly feet, messy snacks, garbage-bag luggage and all. Settled, apparently for good.

Meanwhile, Phillip’s flirtation with Cheryl goes up in smoke when he takes her out and pops the question, though not the question she was expecting: Should he penetrate the 16-year-old girl he’s dating? In a spasm of action and involuntary reaction, Cheryl and Clee start tangling in outrageous martial arts exercises, beating each other up around the house. These are cosmic encounters for Cheryl, who pretends she’s Phillip in the sexual fantasies that blossom as they run through scenarios from the agency’s self-defense videos.

For a while, at least, the lump in her throat goes away. “But how long would it last? ... I tightened my shoulders and bowed my head, coaxing anxieties to the surface. The chaotic mess of the house ... really not that big a deal! Phillip? He wanted my blessing — mine! Kubelko Bondy? ... I wondered how many other women had sat on this toilet and stared at this floor. Each of them the center of their own world, all of them yearning for someone to put their love into so they could see their love, see that they had it. Oh, Kubelko, my boy, how long it’s been since I held you. ...”

As for Phillip: “We hadn’t spoken since I gave him my blessing; I guessed he was doing all the things I was pretending he was. The thought gave me a sad ache, and even this ache was arousing. I felt so close to him.”

Although Cheryl obsesses about it, July’s book isn’t really about sex, wild or repressed, real or imagined. It’s about the search for love. Of course there are complications, many of them funny: Phillip texting Cheryl details as he tangles with his teen idol; the mysterious volunteer gardener whose mail-order snails invade the kitchen; Cheryl’s blossoming jealousy as Clee starts dating; the pair of psychotic chemotherapists that Cheryl consults.

Each story thread opens up a world of possibilities, and the delight is watching July draw them tighter. Her sharp wit and terrific prose rush the story along, pulling the reader along with it, even at times — Cheryl’s ferocious fantasies, creeping grunge, squishy encounters with snails — when in less gifted hands, gentle reader might go Ewww.

In a doctor’s waiting room (spoiler alert), Cheryl reflects: “If the thing in Clee was in any way relying on my narration there would be major gaps in its development. I saw a lazy, text-messaging, gum-chewing embryo, halfheartedly forming vital organs.”

Geeky, precise, obsessive-compulsive and withdrawn as she is, Cheryl is likeable — almost lovable — because July is a brilliant stylist, and better yet, she’s funny. And, in the messy, darkly comic, astonishing world the author opens to us, Cheryl will find the love of her life. This book couldn’t be better.

Novelist Kit Reed is Resident Writer at Wesleyan.