On Miranda July’s The First Bad Man

Trigger Warning: It contains and might support weirdness and queasiness.

Black covers, white lettering. Simple. Nothing visually stimulating, nothing that would bring to mind the fact that the author is also an artist. Should it? I started reading it and was happy to discover new metaphors every now and then, a piece of thought that made me smile, or a dialogue turned monologue that seemed plausible and entertaining, even if somehow unrealistic. I thought it will be a funny little adventure, light though cerebral, pink and red and… (sometimes) black. As it turns out, it was not. After reading a third of the book I started to get a bit disoriented. I kept asking myself where does the story go and how does it want get there? What does the author want to tell me? I could not read it as a rendering of possible life events any longer, because it stopped sounding plausible. It was as if the author just stepped out of her role and started playing with the characters in unexpected ways and, all the while, she seemed to be looking back at the reader in a rather teasing way.

The First Bad Man introduces us to Cheryl, a strenuously quirky forty-something woman who only does things because she is afraid of doing things, who longs for a sort of complete state of inertia because she is too scared to deal with anything else. She seems to be working continuously in order to have “a clean, empty time in her life”. On top of that she tends to vigilantly maintain her loneliness, even if she fantasizes about being together with Phillip, a (much older) colleague. Until Clee (the daughter of her bosses) arrives and turns everything to pieces. Cheryl’s daily life has become a state of emergency, her carefully organized empty life turns into chaos. Then, she somehow realizes that she can only respond to it in a very raw, almost primitive manner: she fights. Physically. With hands and feet, elbows and head until both of them fall exhausted. They reenact scenarios made by the company where Cheryl works (teaching women how to protect themselves against bad men). All this excitement cures her globus hystericus and brings her close (erotically even) to Clee. But then Clee gets pregnant (a one night stand with someone at work, most likely) and Cheryl has to reconsider where she stands in all of this. She directs all her attention toward the new life slowly taking shape in Clee’s womb and which turns out to be a the ancient, itinerant Kubelko Bondy, the child with whom she bonded when she was nine and whom she kept meeting, always in the arms of other women. Now, it seems, he is here to stay. Many things happening in this book seem hardly plausible. Though well structured and written - it has its beginning, middle and end, it has characters (though none of them likable), it has funny scenes, it plays with the language, etc., it does not come across as a book about which I could immediately say that I liked it. It is not something like The Human Stain, or The White Tiger, for example. It has all the ingredients for a good novel but the final product fails to make your heart skip a bit. It does not get under the skin, it does not make you feel much.

A howl was curdling inside me; the ache felt inhuman. Or maybe this was my first human feeling.

That’s what Cheryl says at one point. Perhaps more human feeling would have been required. But then again, that would have been a betrayal, a concession the author would have had to make in order to make us feel good at Cheryl’s expense.

Sometimes I looked at her sleeping face, the living flesh of it, and was overwhelmed by how precarious it was to love a living thing. She could die simply from lack of water. It hardly seemed safer than falling in love with a plant.

That’s how Cheryl sees Clee. And this is how she understands what a happy life could be like:

I was wondering if my life, the life in which I had a son and a beautiful, young girlfriend, could exist outside of the hospital. Or was the hospital its container? Was I like honey thinking it’s a small bear, not realizing the bear is just the shape of its bottle?

Can she see beyond the container? I guess not. And I, the reader, cannot see beyond the covers of the book either.

“I don’t know anything. I’m just a rock in the sky…” says the moon in The Future, a movie made by Miranda July and released a few years ago. That’s how I felt too: I did not know anything. I could not see beyond Cheryl and I could not understand her. But like the rock in the sky, I was unable to escape Earth’s “controlling rigidity”.

Why does this book exist then? How does it contribute to a better understanding of what it means to be a human being? How does it make me see myself and the world in a different light? Does a book need to do anything at all?

I start to think that Miranda July managed to pull quite a trick on the readers, giving them a book that is not really a book, making them read a text that, although it looked like one thing, might have been quite another. As if she came into this big white room full of rules and know-how and hundreds of years of history and, as the conceptual artist that she is, she turned it upside down. This might not be (paraphrasing Marlon James) a game changer. But it certainly shows how to make a conceptual art project into a book. In an interview with The Believer, July says that she approached her project “as if I’m literally the first person to ever write a book.” And later:

Someone like Lydia Davis is as much of an insider as you could be in, like, the literary world, and yet her work maintains this outsider quality, so that when you read it you get a hint of, Oh right, there’s not any rules. You could do anything and call it your work. I’m drawn to that quality in children, nonartists, and really great established artists.

Thus, July’s goal in writing this seems to have been to write as if she were the first writer, as is she were the first bad man cutting off any pandering of any kind. Write as if you were making art, dripping paints on the canvas, cutting strait shapes where there are only curves. A change is as good as a rest, isn’t it? And since I got here I had to think about Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece and about Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present again.

In her review for The New York Times, Lauren Groff wrote that:

A novel is a public performance, and there are immense stakes riding on a writer’s first sortie; under all that pressure, mere comfort and melody and competence can seem like laudable goals. But sometimes fine-honed craft can squeeze the vitality out of a book. When we’re talking about literary fiction, art is the goal, and a book without vitality is a book without art. That’s not a problem for The First Bad Man, which makes for a wry, smart companion on any day. It’s warm. It has a heartbeat and a pulse. This is a book that is painfully alive.

From this perspective, the book seems indeed to have a heartbeat and a pulse. It might have less of it than what The Human Stain has, but it definitely has more than One and Three Chairs. The First Bad Man is out on a limb. It is a book that is not a book and it is a work of art that is not a work of art. It is artistically alive though it is not a cliché-generating machine. It tries not to sell its soul by not taking part in any of the language games.

Great works of art are, or try to be, cliché-generating machines. (…) A glorious Rembrandt self-portrait convinces us that it captures the angstful soul inside its maker, even though he’s turned that soul into a branded product for sale as art. A great cubist still life sells an image of itself as some new, coherent vision of our modern reality, even if reality is the one thing it barely touches on and incoherence is its central virtue . Blake Gopnik

What about reader’s satisfaction, then? Should I not enjoy this book as it is? Of course you should! A change is as good as a rest.