The next evening we did the entire DVD, in order. “Gang Defense” was the most confusing because there were two bad men and another man in all denim who didn’t want trouble. “Hey,” he said to the others. “This isn’t cool. Let’s scram.” Clee switched roles between the three men with no warning; I was constantly stopping to reorient myself.
“What are you doing?” she hissed. “I’m over here.”
“Which one are you?”
She hesitated. Until now there had been no overt acknowledgement of the video or that we were anyone but our own angry selves.
“I’m the first man,” she said.
“The one in denim?”
“The first bad man.”
It was the way she was standing when she said it—her feet planted wide, her big hands waiting in the air. Just like a bad man, the kind that comes to a sleepy town and makes all kinds of trouble before galloping off again. She wasn’t the first bad man ever but the first I’d ever met who had long blond hair and pink velour pants. She snapped her gum impatiently.
Artist, actor, and indie film director Miranda July has an audience.
I am not a part of that audience.
This is the quite simple realization I’ve come to having now read The First Bad Man, in which both a whole lot of things happen and also absolutely nothing at all happens.
The novel centres on Cheryl, an incredibly neurotic, tightly wound woman who works at Open Palm, a non-profit that began life as a women’s self-defence studio. At the outset, Cheryl is seeing a doctor for chromotherapy, to deal with her “globus hystericus”—a perpetual lump in her throat. She visits the doctor at the recommendation of Phillip, an Open Palm board member who Cheryl is more than a little obsessed with.
Phillip, however, is not remotely interested in Cheryl—he’s got his eyes (and penis) set on Kirsten, a teenager. And for some reason never really explained, Phillip requires Cheryl’s blessing before he can act on his paedophilic tendencies. A blessing he pursues, I might add, by constantly texting Cheryl, telling her about how he’s rubbing Kirsten through her jeans—but it’s okay, it doesn’t count because she didn’t orgasm.
And then there’s Kubelko Bondy, the never-not-ridiculous-sounding name Cheryl has given all the children she sees that she occasionally believes to be hers—not biologically, of course, but as “familiars” of a sort.
The novel’s “plot,” inasmuch as it has a plot, kicks into motion when her bosses’ twenty-one-year-old daughter Clee comes to stay with Cheryl, to get her life in order. Clee is the tornado that enters Cheryl’s life and throws everything into disarray. She’s territorial, abusive, and a self-described misogynist. It’s only when Cheryl meets Clee’s aggressiveness, acting out scenarios from Open Palm’s self-defence videos that a bond forms between the two women, based first in friendship and then, not so gradually, romantic love. Whether their bond makes sense is another question, as few if any emotional decisions in this book feel grounded by anything more substantial than a dice roll.
I guess that last point cuts right to the core of my issues with this book—that its affectations and seemingly random character arcs overwhelm all other aspects of it. Everything is so strangely matter of fact that not a single emotional turn has any resonance—it’s a mind map of character decisions and idiosyncrasies that connect because the author has drawn a line between them, but not because they actually do.
In an interview given for a project she was filming, July is quoted saying, “… my movies and really all my work is very much set in the everyday world with regular people…” Whether she believes this to be true or not, I find it patently false when being forced to describe literally anyone or anything that happens in The First Bad Man. This book doesn’t exist in a reality I know or understand; it is in a world of July’s own design, one so twee, so precious that it makes a Wes Anderson film resemble a WWE match. And in being so severely delicate, so far removed from any emotional grounding, July’s book quickly traverses from quirky to nonsensical.
*See this rainbow unicorn butterfly kitty? It’s less delicate than this book.