The First Bad Man

Miranda July

Published by Canongate Books UK, Scribner US


Reviewed by Elsbeth Lindner

Click here to buy this book


Even Shakespeare, viewing all the world as a stage, might have raised an eyebrow at the unimaginable heights of weirdness, perversity, sex and comedy that imbue the roles played in filmmaker July’s first novel. Unexpected, barmy yet oddly irresistible, this extravaganza of eccentricity nevertheless manages to say something peculiarly touching about women’s lives and choices.

The central character is Cheryl Glickman, middle-aged, obsessive/compulsive, a put-upon worker in a charity that makes money selling safety videos for women in role-play format that double as workout routines. The charity’s founders pretend to philanthropy while living lives of unbounded exploitation and self-centred meanness. The receptionist at the medical practice Cheryl attends for her globus hystericus doubles as a therapist herself. The homeless man who plays the part of Cheryl’s landscaper is far from what he seems. And Cheryl herself, in her head at least, takes the parts of sexual partner and mother into realms which bear only the most vestigial relationship with reality.

Into this scenario wanders Clee, the surly daughter of Cheryl’s bosses who is foisted onto Cheryl as a rent-free roommate. What begins as a hellish invasion turns gradually much stranger as Clee and Cheryl develop a relationship based on role-play that includes physical violence and later a sexual dimension that connects to Cheryl’s equally bizarre relationship with an older man, Phillip. A fantasy baby that turns into solid flesh and a brief burst of lesbianism are added to the surreal mix.

Written from Cheryl’s perspective, this oxymoronic tale lurches from sentimentality to empathy and away into the stratosphere with smooth nonchalance. Tender, but smart enough, generally, to puncture the balloon when emotions start to soar, this is a deft, modern, endearing piece of work that borrows the term ‘kook’ from David Bowie and gives it a whole new lease of life.


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