Book Review: The First Bad Man
The First Bad Man by Miranda July is equal parts odd and interesting.
It's the first thing I've read by the author (and July's first novel), though I was previously aware that she was what you might call a quirky writer. I was instantly captivated. I love reading about the ways individuals navigate life and love; I thrive on novels that are more psychologically driven than plot driven.
July's novel is just that. The protagonist, Cheryl, is a 40-something eccentric who lives alone in her perfectly ordered world--a world that is disrupted when her boss's 20-year-old daughter, Clee, abruptly moves in. The two embark on an odd and unbalanced relationship that evolves many times during the course of the book, a battle between the dominant and submissive, masculine and feminine, likely and unlikely. In the process, Cheryl is pulled from her somewhat reclusive ways and thrust into a new lifestyle, where she eventually involves herself in what will later become the most important story of her life.
This book is unexpected, full of bizarre scenarios, strangely interesting characters and a plot that follows absolutely no particular path. At times, the situations in which Cheryl finds herself (not to mention her inner monologue) is so random and absurd, you can hardly believe how they came to be. For me though, it didn't feel overdone; Cheryl is odd, no doubt, but still authentic and relatable.
I think the most interesting and somewhat unexplainable aspect of the book is Cheryl's relationship with Clee. She describes it many times as 'adult games,' a concept I find both interesting and in many ways, true to reality. It's the dynamics of their relationship that keeps the book going--I don't want to give too much away, because that's half the fun of the book. Yes, fun; the book is a strange mix of nostalgia, humor, drama and furtive introspection. In some ways, it's a tale of acceptance, for oneself, for one's idiosyncrasies, for the unusual, because it is those things that make up meaning, not just the socially correct norms the world has built up around us.
The second half of the book reminded me of The God of Small Things, when the brother and sister unite again in a relational dynamic that is historically shunned far and wide (aka incest). Towards the end of The First Bad Man, Clee and Cheryl's relationship morphs into something that resembles such; something unspeakable, off limits, remarkably unique, treading the line of normalcy (or perhaps stepping off it completely). Just as author Arundhati Roy tries to engage and convince the reader to accept and understand the brother/sister relationship--all the while expertly revealing the reader's inner prejudices--so does July when it comes to Cheryl and Clee. She makes us uncomfortable for a reason, teaching us to look at them through another lens.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and whole-heartedly recommend it to anyone looking for something a little different. July's writing is refreshingly honest and unconventional; she has such a way of combining the grotesque and the beautiful. This book is complicated, raw and gives us all a chance to reevaluate and embrace some of our own oddities and tendencies.
Some of my favorite quotes from the book . . .
"I realized that we all think we might be terrible people. But we only reveal this before we ask someone to love us. It is a kind of undressing." -p. 17
"You will eat, you will laugh at stupid things, you will stay up all night just to see what it feels like, you will fall painfully in love, you will have babies of your own, you will doubt and regret and yearn and keep a secret. You will get old and decrepit, and you will die, exhausted from all that living. That is when you get to die. Not now." - p. 173
"A new word, I would come up with it right now--which letters would I use? S, for sure. Maybe an O. Was this how words were made? How would I announce the word? Who would I contact about that?" - p. 180
"If you were wise enough to know that this life would consist mostly of letting go of things you wanted, then why not get good at the letting go, rather than the trying to have?" - p. 220