Michael Darer ’16 says Miranda July’s first novel, “The First Bad Man,” will leave the reader "speechless and restless."

c/o Goodreads.com

It was only a matter of time before Miranda July released a novel. The author of “The First Bad Man,” which was published on Jan. 13 of this year, has spread herself far and wide across media. She’s directed two full-length features (“The Future” and “Me and You and Everyone We Know”), released two LPs, published a collection of short stories, appeared in two music videos, and unveiled an app. Sooner or later, she will have a Broadway show for us. This multimedia dabbling might be frustrating from a different artist—e.g. James Franco, who seems dedicated to having a showy appetizer sampler of a career—but with July, it has always felt organic; she seems to succeed at all of her creative projects. “The First Bad Man” is no exception. It’s the sort of taut, expansive, generous, absurd, filthy, timid, brash, melancholic care package she has grown skilled at crafting, a text that seems destined to restrict itself to one mood or approach, only to bloom in hundreds of different directions, each budding with beauty and potency. “Bad Man” is the story of Cheryl Glickman, a bundle of quirks and psychosomatic ailments, who finds herself entertaining a houseguest in the form of Clee. The daughter of her bosses at the odd New Age martial arts center, Clee is a bully and takes every opportunity to exploit her host’s anxieties. In her guest’s presence, the tapestry of Cheryl’s fears and desires are heightened, culminating in strange, uncomfortable, and deeply compassionate confrontations between the pair. It’s a familiar set-up that July takes to weird, dark, and lovely places with the lightest of touches. It no doubt helps that the stand-off between Cheryl and Clee is far from the only thing at work in “Bad Man.” Though just under three hundred pages, the novel is a churning dervish of moving components, all somehow kept remarkably in place. There’s Cheryl’s obsession with one of the board members at her place of work, who just needs her approval of the object of his own desire, a minor. There’s Cheryl’s strange fascination with children, certain as she is that she’s met her soul mate as a baby, only to have his face seemingly projected on everyone she encounters. There’s the wacky opening visit to the chromotherapist, who comes highly recommended by Cheryl’s crush. The whole enterprise constantly teeters on the brink of the twee, but July works diligently to keep it from straying there. Certainly, July is the type of artist who is often accused of dipping into some sort of manic pixie floral emptiness—a whimsical spinning of whimsical wheels—but nowhere is her refusal to do so more visible than in her novel. Like in “No One Belongs Here More Than You,” her brilliant collection of short fiction, July adds textures to every single aspect of her characters, grounding their least grounded qualities in something that feels true and honest. The prose has the tendency to take flight in directions that might initially seem weird for weirdness’ sake, but much of July’s genius is ultimately in directing her moments of superficial oddness toward something deeply and profoundly relatable. Nestled within the loose gentle flow of “Bad Man” are some of the hardest hitting insights that the author has stumbled upon yet: when Cheryl first meets Clee, she marvels, “She was much older than she’d been when she was fourteen. She was a woman. So much a woman that for a moment I wasn’t sure what I was.” These are the unassuming and wounding nuggets that July specializes in, a melancholy that exists within the chambers of her characters’ nervous fascinations. The world is not just colored by their anxieties but constructed of them. Perhaps that is where the book’s major weakness is most evident July’s tendency towards solipsism and her inability as an author to create any real distinction between the world of her writing and the world of her writing that her characters see. For all the generosity that flows from the novel, there’s never a sense that those on the periphery of Cheryl’s life have much purpose after she turns away. When they do show up, they are funny, smart, powerful, and carefully drawn, but once Cheryl leaves the room they almost seem to evaporate. There are no other avenues for the text to stroll down and no other characters that it has any interest in following. As a result, Cheryl’s lens becomes the only lens, not only available to the reader, but seemingly in existence in the world. It’s a sharp, wonderfully imagined lens, but it can also be suffocating, and in those moments, July provides no option but to set the book aside. Most likely, this is a problem that’s evolved not from some deficiency, but from July’s own mastery of short fiction. The more time I spent with “Bad Man,” the more I could see the stitches, the moments where it seemed like July took a break from writing and imagining, to return later. Some truly wonderful sections of this novel might have worked better as short stories; even as July expertly juggles them, it’s easy to see better approaches that might have lessened that singularity of focus. It’s exhilarating to see all of the author’s talents packed into a single narrative—her joy in examining the rituals of hygiene, her mastery in combining the lewd and the lovely—but it can also suck the air out of the room. July’s novel carries a very specific power. It leaves you speechless and restless, loving and loveless. When it surfaces in its purest form it is overwhelming in its curious beauty, but it can also drive a reader away. Sometimes you wish the book would take a step back when it absolutely refuses to. Sometimes you wish it would focus up, while instead it droops. At no point, however, do you lose the particular flavor or power of the writing. At no point does the text abandon its churning core. “The First Bad Man” is a brilliant, beautiful mess of a first novel. It’s patently, wonderfully, undeniably July’s.

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