In a recent interview with the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Miranda July explained that the “common theme” among her favorite childhood books was “orphaned girls who make secret, special places for themselves. That’s my core identity; everything is built upon that.” It’s not a stretch to understand this “everything built” to include her work as an artist, filmmaker, and writer.
Throughout her multimedia work, July’s characters invent “secret, special places,” both physical and psychological, to mediate their emotional experiences of the world. In these fantasies, games, and daydreams they bury vulnerabilities, escape from sorrow, play with new personas, imagine better lives. It often seems that the more her narrators retreat into their peculiar and particular interior worlds, the less in touch they are with “the real world.” Some critics contend that this makes her characters difficult to connect with. But as the therapist in July’s first novel, The First Bad Man, puts it: “Real comes and goes and isn’t very interesting.”
Those who find fault with the unreality of July’s new book would be well advised to take its fictional therapist’s advice––advice that also serves as an aesthetic rationale for its elaborate, unpredictable, frustrating and occasionally implausible plot. To mistake the novel’s realistic trappings (office life, romance, grocery shopping) for an attempt at self-serious realism is to miss its underlying spirit of play. These intricate, vulnerable fantasies are what keep the novel––and its protagonist-narrator Cheryl Glickman––alive.
Cheryl begins the novel by referencing the cinematic fantasy of perfection: “I drove to the doctor’s office as if starring in a movie Phillip was watching––windows down, hair blowing, just one hand on the wheel.” As she rides the elevator up to her doctor’s office, she practices a casual look of non-surprise in the mirror, in case she runs into Phillip, her crush. But Cheryl’s not the only one daydreaming. Everybody in The First Bad Man is living out a fantasy, whether the source material is a pornographic stereotype, strange dream, childhood memory, or Hollywood movie.
As with July’s Somebody app, where an anonymous stranger delivers your SMS to a friend, communication in The First Bad Man is constantly constructed and complicated by the presence of a third-party mediator. Philip routinely sexts Cheryl for permission to perform sexual acts with a teenager; Cheryl’s bosses insist that Cheryl and her co-workers stiffly reenact a decontextualized office ritual, brought back from their trip to Japan; Cheryl and her roommate Clee communicate through reenacting the clichéd dialogue and violent choreography of her company’s self-defense workout videos.
Cheryl and Clee’s ersatz violence––they perform “a re-creation of a simulation of the kind of thing that might happen to a woman if she didn’t keep her wits about her”––forms the core of the novel’s action. (Its title comes from a scene where Clee and Cheryl discuss whether Clee should play “the first bad man” in the self-defense routine, or the second). But you don’t have to identify with these games July’s characters play in order to understand their emotional reasons for playing them. Office workers need secret gardens too.
What makes Cheryl’s concern with performance––the fantasy through which our ideas of “normal” operates––ultimately compelling, in addition to laugh-out-loud funny and cry-in-public sad, is the emotional clarity of her observations. On anticipating bad news from a doctor: “Whatever he told me would be the new reality and we’d just have to accept it.” On transforming into a mother: “I hoped to retain a tiny corner of the old me, just enough to warn other women with. But I knew this was unlikely; when the process was complete I wouldn’t have anything left to complain with, it wouldn’t hurt anymore, I wouldn’t remember.” On love: “We all think we might be terrible people. But we only reveal this before we ask someone to love us.”
As in J.G. Ballard’s Crash, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, July’s First Bad Man uses the constructs of fiction to reveal the conventions of representation that guide everyday life. But unlike those stories, where the protagonist ends up further alienated by narcissism, The First Bad Man uses the artifice of the performance in the service of intimacy. In the place of meta-fiction’s infinitely regressive hall-of-mirrors, July depicts a meaningful and messy portrait of our all-too-human relationships. As a long short story, a piece of absurd theater, and a memoir of new motherhood, The First Bad Man is also, somehow, (in Cheryl’s words) “a great American love story for our time.”
At the end of The First Bad Man (spoiler), a sly meta-fictional gesture closes out a short vignette about familial love: Cheryl’s reunion with her teenage son is followed by “Applause like rain.” It’s almost as if an ending credit was slapped onto the book. And yet, it works. July infuses her self-conscious structures of mediation with the throbbing, immediacy of heartfelt feeling. Playing a game and falling in love aren’t mutually exclusive in July’s world; in the end, they might even be the same thing.