You might meet Cheryl Glickman living in Berkeley, California (where Miranda July happened to grow up). Or, you might meet her in Los Angeles, where Miranda July’s debut novel, The First Bad Man, takes place. In The First Bad Man, July is never afraid to be both funny and way too intimate, oddball and honest. She peers over the fences of social roles and gender norms, doing acrobatics atop the concrete walls we live between.
In times of stress, Cheryl’s throat tightens, and she can’t swallow. She spits, and eats soft food. She has countless systems, down to eating toast with her chicken and kale dinner because it is easy to clean up but still counts as a grain. She’s worked at Open Palm, a women’s self defense franchise, for over twenty years. She gives new employees gifts, so that when they cry later, at home to their spouses, they’ll have a buffer of gratitude. She works from home, being told her managerial style is more effective from a distance. She is, you could say, a bit uptight.
She is also a new age Walter Mitty of sorts, with a vivid internal dialogue. She pines for a member of Open Palm’s board, Phillip, imagining they’ve known each other through time. As caveman and cavewoman, as ancient king and queen. She runs into babies everywhere that she has a deep, inexplicable bond with. She allows herself one set of dishes, because that way they never pile up in the sink. With such a rich inner world, and such a strict outer one, she’s a ball of raw emotion suffocating under social niceties.
There could be no more opposite creature on this earth than Cheryl from Clee, a twenty-year-old, sweat-pant-wearing, Ojai-native who arrives on Cheryl’s doorstep. Cheryl, unable to voice much, including her own discomfort with houseguests, has been suckered by the CEOs at Open Palm into taking in their daughter as she gets her footing in LA.
Clee is a glorious example of all that Cheryl is not—she rarely showers, she ignores her untreated athlete’s foot, watches TV day and night, eats frozen dinners. She is a massively physical presence, a massively feminine presence to Cheryl’s unstated androgyny.
What is there for the two of them to do, really, but fight? If you didn’t expect this book to be about two women sparring, then you weren’t the only one. All the reviews of The First Bad Man exclaim at the novelty of Clee and Cheryl sparring, to the point that I wish I’d avoid this. But really, it is that unusual to read about. Where in this world, aside from women’s physical defense courses, do we discuss women’s physicality, one woman cowing another in the kitchen then wrestling her to the floor, both breathless and angry and incredibly satisfied?
Clee and Cheryl begin to act out scenes from Open Palm’s self defense videos, Clee attacking, Cheryl defending. And between them, something more begins to stir. As there is a big age difference, and they make an odd coupling, Clee’s buxom sloppy twenty to Cheryl’s prim and matronly fourty, this is bound to make some people squirm. But this is a book all about pushing outside of boundaries, crawling into roles that don’t fit. Some of this goes well, some of this doesn’t.
July reminds me of Joshua Ferris, as his novels Then We Came To The End and To Rise Again At A Decent Hour manage to be incredibly funny and still accurate depictions of the modern world, still successful portrayals of the struggles of everyday life. Both authors are unafraid to take an unseen plot twist rather than forge straight forward.
If you haven’t taken up audiobooks before, now is a great time. Miranda July narrates The First Bad Man, and although usually authors narrating their own novels is something to stay away from, July is a performance artist above all things. She manages to perfectly embody each character, while never letting her dramatics go overboard, to the point they would distract from the story itself.
If you like this book, try reading: