Bad Romance

The First Bad Man: A Novel BY Miranda July. Scribner. Hardcover, 288 pages. $25.

The cover of The First Bad Man: A Novel

Women who make “good” choices are generally said to have self-respect. At the very least, our usual definition of the quality assumes that a woman make choices at all—or, progressive opinion might have it, that she be aware she isn’t making any. Miranda July—whose characters are wimpish, lonely, and lacking in self-knowledge—does not seem preoccupied by self-respect of this conventional kind. Instead her characters wait, with various degrees of whimsical passivity, for their lives to change. “I am prepared for amazing things to happen,” says a mall shoe salesman in July’s first movie, Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005). “I’ve been gearing up to do something really incredible for the last fifteen years,” says a frustrated preschool dance teacher in her second movie, The Future (2011). Really, these people are waiting for their lives to be changed by others.

In theory, Cheryl Glickman, the cowed, delusional protagonist of July’s debut novel, The First Bad Man, is no more alarming a figure than any forty-year-old white woman living alone in Los Angeles. In assessing her potential attractiveness to men, she touts her “ears: darling little shells. I . . . try to enter crowded rooms ear-first, walking sideways.” Cheryl works for a women’s organization called Open Palm, which found its niche selling female self-defense videos as aerobics tapes. That Cheryl is the most pathetic kind of victim—routinely victimized, however inadvertently, by equally pathetic, inert people—is initially more comical than disturbing. She can’t get rid of Rick, a “homeless gardener who came with [her] house,” because she worries he will think she is “less open-minded than the previous owners.”

Yet Cheryl’s cheerful helplessness renders her predicament—and her personality—increasingly sinister. In the first chapter, Phillip, an aging creep on the board of her company, admires her chunky necklace by tugging at it. Cheryl takes the exchange as evidence for her unflagging fantasy that Phillip is her soul mate: “An outsider . . . might have thought this moment was degrading, but I knew . . . he was mocking the kind of man who would do something like that. . . . It was something you could do only with someone you really trusted, someone who knew how capable and good you actually were.” Cheryl might not be the author of her own life, but she is its intrepid narrator, editorializing about her experiences incorrectly and with many flourishes.

By the second chapter, Phillip is taunting Cheryl with an impending “confession.” He asks if she would “ever consider a lover who was much older or much younger?” Barely containing her excitement, she thinks, “Phillip was twenty-two years older than me.” But the object of Phillip’s affection, “a woman who is my equal in every way, who challenges me, who makes me feel, who humbles me,” is Kirsten. She’s sixteen years old.

Phillip wisely latches on to Cheryl as his confidant. Like a puppy or preverbal child, Cheryl cannot discriminate between good and bad attention. Unwittingly—she does nothing wittingly—she has been tasked with playing father figure to the romance, for Phillip has already spoken to Kirsten, and they want Cheryl’s blessing to have sex. In a rare display of self-preservation, Cheryl says she needs to think about it. But she does not put a stop to Phillip’s confessions. For much of the novel, he sends Cheryl a play-by-play of his and Kirsten’s trysts: “SHE STRIPPED FOR ME: SAW HER PUSS AND JUGS. UHHHH. KEPT MY HANDS TO MYSELF.” Meanwhile, Cheryl occupies herself with whether or not to grant her approval, buoyed by the thought that Phillip “wanted my blessing—mine!”

Phillip is not suave enough to be considered malicious, nor is Cheryl cognizant enough to be his victim. She rationalizes Kirsten’s existence as a blip on the radar: “Maybe [Kirsten] was our cat for the past one hundred thousand lifetimes, always on the bed, pawing around in the covers. . . . Congratulations, kitty, you’re the girlfriend this time—but I’m still in charge.” In point of fact, Cheryl is her own victim—or, if her lack of agency is the bottom line of her personality, as July implies, her own savior. Is Cheryl’s ability to glean human connection from debasement a skill to be admired? Why am I able to ask such a genuine question about such a ridiculous situation? Or, better, why doesn’t The First Bad Man read like satire?

This is, impressively, an antiredemptive novel, proposing that meaningful relationships are possible only at their most base. Cheryl fails to get an audience with Phillip (the only requirement on her end), thus rendering him ineligible as a partner. Instead it’s Clee, the twenty-year-old daughter of Cheryl’s passively manipulative bosses, who takes on the role of Cheryl’s lover. Busty and inarticulate, Clee arrives at Cheryl’s on the pretext that she needs a place to stay in LA while she pursues her acting career. Instead, she begins physically abusing a shocked Cheryl for apparent sport.

The plot finds its traction in their so-called relationship, as Clee’s violence intensifies to Cheryl’s seeming pleasure. One night, Clee critiques her host’s appearance at length. “My eyelid was starting to fall into my eye,” Cheryl reflects. “My left side had always been uglier. Some real thought had gone into this little speech.” That Cheryl would first allow and then thrive on an abusive relationship makes a deranged kind of sense for a woman whose most ambitious desire is for a mere acknowledgment of her existence.

One forgets that July’s characters are aspirational because they aren’t traditionally so. Their fantasies reflect not class anxiety but love anxiety. Instead of wanting to jump an income bracket, they strive for human connection of any flavor. Cheryl’s life in the six years before she got the courage to approach Phillip wasn’t a life at all, yet her new life could have been started by just about anyone. This thesis, which you’ll find at the heart of July’s oeuvre, is provocative—who needs compatibility when you have fantasy? But there is something hollow in it, something unaspirational in the novelist herself, such that our protagonist can’t be called a heroine. She’s just a lonely woman who can’t make herself less lonely.

Kaitlin Phillips is a writer living in Manhattan.