The First Bad Man
“All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.”
—Gabriel García Márquez
Meet Cheryl Glickman, 43, the protagonist of Miranda July’s 2015 novel The First Bad Man. Cheryl lives alone and works for a company that turned self-defense videos for women into a form of exercise. She has a burning crush on a 60-something-year-old Phillip. Phillip has a crush too, on a 16-year-old girl named Kristin. Cheryl believes that she and Phillip had known each other in their past lives. Phillip believes that he needs to obtain Cheryl’s permission to have sex with Kristin.
For those familiar with Miranda July’s work, this setup might not appear odd. Her work is often described as “quirky” or “whimsical.” That assessment is not incorrect—July’s characters tend to be eccentric misfits, idiosyncratic outsiders, isolated from others but not by choice, and thus irrevocably lonely. Unable to change their circumstances, they change their interpretation of them. They swap causes with effects in a way that treats logic like a rubber twist tie. They cut up reality into pieces as if it were a photograph then re-arrange them more to their liking. This is one of July’s fortes. She methodically guides her readers through her characters’ chain of magical thinking every step of the way.
By conventional measures, July’s characters appear unreliable if not certifiably insane, so it’s easy to label her work “quirky” or “whimsical.” It has a dreamlike quality. But there is more to it than smoke and mirrors. The author has an uncanny ability to give these oddballs a credible voice. They might have little public or private life, but as they make sense out of things nonsensical, while stumbling on things straight forward, their secret lives boom.
In July’s short fiction collection No One Belongs Here More Than You, released in 2007, in a story called “The Swim Team,” a young woman teaches three elderly people to swim on a kitchen floor. Their town is landlocked and does not have a pool. So the students kick at the floor, flail their arms, and put their faces into bowls of water. Their choice is to swim on a kitchen floor or not at all. As a result, the characters become simultaneously completely delusional and very self-aware. Those who could believe in the possibility of using make-belief solutions for real problems might find the kitchen floor more appealing. Somewhere along the way, swimming without water no longer seems absurd.
The case of Cheryl Glickman is no different. When Phillip rejects her, she is devastated, but then she finds a way to talk herself out of heartache. Cheryl interprets Phillip’s need to stamp his relationship with a teenage girl with her approval as a sign. She and Phillip have a special bond. Who would Phillip divulge his most shameful intimate secret to? To someone who matters, to someone with whom his life (past, present, and future) is undeniably intertwined, to someone whose love he ultimately needs. “I realized that we all think we might be terrible people. But we only reveal this before we ask someone to love us. It’s a kind of undressing,” Cheryl thinks. Unable, or unwilling, to take Phillip’s rejection for what it is, Cheryl’s make-belief solution gives her the sense of companionship she desperately needs.
Cheryl wouldn’t dare to ask anyone to love her. She describes herself as a woman of 43, childless, grey hair. She is meek, passive, and the external world dismisses her existence making her feel barely visible. She has no position of power, no children, and is not sexually attractive. If she were to disappear, would anyone notice and, more importantly, would it matter? The question in itself is not new or unique. Cheryl’s belief that she does matter to her fictional Phillip isn’t either. But her survival tactic, or rather the reasoning behind it, is what makes it unique. Cheryl minimizes her own footprint in her own life. It reduces her need to do any kind of undressing or asking anyone to love her. Problem solved.
How does Cheryl do that? She has a housekeeping system: less is more. To keep dirty dishes from piling up in the sink, she avoids using dishes and eats straight out of food containers. Using dishes can lead to not washing them, then to eating off dirty ones, then to not bathing, then to urinating into cups because they are the closest to the bed. Then she would be consumed by a debilitating sadness. But the oversimplified routine makes Cheryl’s existence, in her own words, “dreamlike.” Hiccups removed, life becomes smooth and “after days and days alone it gets silky to the point where I can’t even feel myself anymore, it’s as if I don’t exist.” Cheryl life is a series of mirrors, reflection upon a reflection, as if she making a photocopy, then another photocopy of that, followed by another, until the colors of the original print become so diluted it almost disappears.
Obedient and docile Cheryl simply conforms to the notion that she hardly exists, watering down her routine and with it her loneliness and sadness. She might have stopped hoping to get to a beach or even a pool, but she does have a kitchen floor. Her secret life is flourishing. She does not have a lover, but as she closes her eyes, she imagines herself being Phillip, engaging in all the sexual acts he is describing in his texts. She does not have a child, but she has a karmic connection with a boy named Kubelko Bondy—she sees him in the eyes of other women’s babies. But as the novel sharply veers off the main road, it turns out erasing yourself from existence might be harder than you would initially think.
Enter 21-year-old Clee, Cheryl’s unwanted houseguest, the daughter of her bosses. Clee is everything Cheryl is not. She consumes massive quantities of junk food, produces piles of garbage, constantly watches television, and barely bathes. She is anything but dreamlike or passive. And, according to Cheryl, hardly feminine: “A woman talks, too much—and worries, too much—and gives and gives. A woman bathes.” Clee finds Cheryl’s appearance and character repulsive so, despite, the fact that she is staying on her couch, Clee attacks Cheryl physically. Cheryl fights back. After all, she knows a thing or two about self-defense. To her own surprise, she enjoys it immensely. So much, the fights become regular and scripted. Clee, a willing participant, takes on the part of the attacker from the old self-defense videos. Cheryl now has a real relationship with human being, a tangible secret, however unconventional.
No gritty detail of the fighting is spared. The bruises and scratches on Cheryl’s sagging skin, Clee’s horrendous foot fungus, all of it, smells and sounds, slap sloppily against each other. This is no longer “quirky” or “whimsical,” this is gruesome and grotesque. Then, as the novel takes another turn, this female Fight Club turns sexual. When it comes to the erotic encounters between the women, the descriptions of the physicality are equally abundant. Reading about Cheryl’s freshly shaved privates and varicose veins is even more awkward than reading about her scratches and bruises. The scene is anything but idealized. It’s awkwardly voyeuristic, like reading a romance novel with your aunt and uncle as the main characters. The images are intense and resolute, not a series of reflections.
The contrast between the dreaminess of the prose and the abrasive unforgiving physicality of action can be off-putting. Had it been written by an author other than July, reading the plotline might be reason enough to put the novel down. But many who read July’s work or watch her movies, note her ability to effortlessly blend the real and the imaginary. Her mastery is also in weaving her characters’ secret lives into the senseless minutiaeof their houses, jobs, and interactions with other people. It’s anything but whimsical, it’s concrete and precise. The details of the imaginary world of July’s characters are rich and well-made, so one has to look close to notice they are stage props. Who said that swimming without water is not a valid form of exercise or that reenacting self-defense videos with an obnoxious houseguest is not a way to build a human connection?
This is how July’s characters, all these loners and outsiders gain the freedom to speak and dare to ask to be loved. Their desperation becomes endearing and their debilitating sadness abates just a bit.