I’m always a little skeptical when Hollywood darlings cross over to publishing (see: James Franco). I’ll confess to picking up filmmaker Miranda July’s debut novel, “The First Bad Man,” with some uncharitable trepidation.
But after putting it down, I have no compunction in predicting (in January, no less) that “The First Bad Man” will be one of the best books of 2015.
The novel is told from the perspective of Cheryl Glickman, a middle-aged middle manager doggy-paddling through life. She spends most of her days working at Open Palm, a self-defense nonprofit that’s turned fear into an exercise craze.
Cheryl’s single, but yearns for a lecherous old man on the organization’s board. She’s childless, but can’t help checking the faces of each baby that she meets, searching for a special connection “greater than his bond with his mother.”
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In short, Cheryl is pathetic. And her failure to assert herself over the years has led to globus hystericus — literally, an anxious lump in her throat that swells with each new disappointment.
The treatment for her condition is easy — therapy — but even that seems out of reach.
“Therapy is for couples,” she sighs. “So is Christmas. So is camping. So is beach camping.”
Cheryl’s stubborn, at times uncomfortably frank voice is the novel’s greatest strength.
Humor emerges naturally from both situation (say, her white boss’s misappropriation of Japanese customs) and the sneaky slow burn of frustrated expectations.
“Once Carl called me ginjo,” she reflects, “which I thought meant ‘sister,’ until he told me it’s Japanese for a man, usually an elderly man, who lives in isolation while he keeps the fire burning for the whole village.”
That voice only sharpens when her boss’s 21-year-old daughter Clee, an oafish, self-proclaimed “misogynist or whatever,” moves in with Cheryl and starts bullying her for sport.
July is brutal on her heroine — at times, simply reading the novel feels like an act of violence. We stare, rubbernecked and horrified, while the cosmic joke of Cheryl’s life snowballs on.
It’s a sensation not unlike watching nature documentaries: we don’t want to see the lioness rip into the wounded gazelle, but it seems somehow worse to look away.
But just before we tire of cringing, July turns the novel on its axis. Cheryl realizes her tussles with Clee are the only times her perpetual throat-lump starts to loosen. Cheryl likes being bullied. Like-likes it. To the point that even the most hardened readers might blush as her once-repressed mind chases increasingly perverse thrills.
The adult world, awakened Cheryl posits, is full of “adult games.” July’s novel might well be one of them. As the pages turn, Cheryl’s world becomes wider and stranger, the rules that govern it hazier. And that’s not a bad thing.
Each new development — chromotherapy, unplanned pregnancy, love sprung from “cowlike vacuousness” — feels like a literary sucker punch, one so calculated and well-placed that we can’t help, while bowled over, but admire July’s left hook.
It’s a lot to balance. But it works because the novel’s eccentricities — I hate to use the much-maligned “quirks” — are treated with sincerity, not trotted out like sideshow attractions. Open Palm might be a joke, but the self-defense scenarios Cheryl acts out in her home are all too real. Cheryl might be female neurosis personified, but she’s also human and hurting.
And July’s emotional insights are as unassuming as they are universal. In Cheryl, July manifests a host of familiar fears — that whatever spell has conjured us a good life will soon break, that our relationships with loved ones will dissolve as soon as the context changes.
“Was I like honey thinking it’s a small bear,” she wonders, “not realizing the bear is just the shape of its bottle?”
That emotional clarity is enough to make the finale’s contrivances stick out more than they might otherwise. In the last 30 pages, July’s characters are plunged into a dreary stasis, a dissatisfyingly predictable finish for a novel marked by seat-of-the-pants thrills.
Still, “The First Bad Man” is worth it for the sheer pleasure of discovering a fresh story and a vibrant, original voice. Readers may find the novel as seductive as Cheryl finds love: “It just feels good all over,” she gasps. “It’s like wearing something beautiful and eating something delicious at the same time, all the time.”
The First Bad Man, by Miranda July (288 pages; Scribner; $25)