Sometimes, as a reviewer, it pays to wait a few days after finishing a book before beginning the review. This is the case with The First Bad Man, Miranda July's first novel in the midst of a career as film-maker, installation artist and author of one volume of short stories. It is as dark and risky as her award-winning 2005 film, Me And You And Everyone We Know, which enjoyed some popularity on the art film circuit and DVD rental market here. It also upset many viewers for its depiction of willing sex between very young girls and a much older man.
The First Bad Man is just as startling - and to write a startling novel so many hundred years into the life of the genre is no small achievement. July delves into human expressions of sex, loneliness, love, violence and parenthood - all archetypal themes - and gives them fresh, original force.
Plump, grey-haired, lonely and mostly unlikeable, Cheryl Glickman suffers unrequited love for a colleague, Phil Bettelheim. They work for Open Palm, a company that has developed women's self-defence into a kind of fitness regime. This was Cheryl's idea but, as in most aspects of her life, she goes unrewarded. Instead, her employers lumber her with their problem teenage daughter, Clee, who has no motivation, no manners and stinky feet. After Clee moves in she begins beating Cheryl - together they act out the scenarios in Open Palm's promotional videos, taking them to their non-defensive conclusions. "On a cellular level Clee knew exactly what to do - she'd seen hundreds of demonstrations like this before the age of five."
The violence turns Cheryl on, and we are not spared the pornographic details of what goes on in her mind as she imagines consummating the relationship with the girl - only, in all her fantasies, Cheryl is a man - and usually the paedophiliac Phil, the object of her desire. This abject, perverse situation, on the surface of it, offers little hope for any illumination. July's surprising skill as a forensic examiner of the darkest, dirtiest corners of human relationships, is that something approximating love does blossom. The novel even has a kind of fairy-tale ending far in the future.
July achieved the same balance in the early film as she does in this novel - I laughed in spite of myself and felt sick in the guts. If I had written this review hours within closing the book I would have cautioned against reading it - and not out of squeamishness, more that the pervading sense of hopelessness too often overwhelmed the black humour, of which there is plenty.
Now, a few days later, the memory of Cheryl's dry, unshockable voice as it told this crazy, lively story of sick American weirdness and the disruption of her sad, narrow, anally retentive life before the arrival of terrifying Clee, is almost a pleasant one. Not for the faint-hearted, July sidles up to join the ranks of Will Self, Charles Bukowski, Michel Houellebecq and Dominique Aury.
The First Bad Man
by Miranda July