Miranda July’s originality of vision rests on an acute (and astute) awareness of the cosmic and the quotidian, and how human beings are always responding to both at the same time.
The First Bad Man by Miranda July. Scribner, 288 pages, $25.
By Anthony Wallace
Miranda July’s collection of short stories, No one belongs here more than you., won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award in 2007, and fans of that book and of July’s work in general have been waiting patiently for her first novel, on the e- shelves today and well worth the wait. The novel has some important qualities in common with the story collection and also some important differences. In common: readers will recognize the July protagonist, a character who fixates on another character as an idealized lover, one who will solve all her problems and transform her loneliness into something gloriously transcendent of time, space, and the solipsistic self. Cheryl Glickman lives an active fantasy life, as so many of July’s characters do, and frequently blurs the line between fantasy and “reality.” Readers of the short fiction will also recognize July’s seamless negotiation between that inner life and the external demands of plot and the reality of other characters’ lives—how they really live and what they really want.
The novel also contains a quality I associate with July’s fiction and which in some ways is its most salient and original characteristic: she creates a densely textured and fully three-dimensional psychic environment that her characters live in, and within, a vision of human existence with respect to cosmic forces both large and small: invisible forces July makes visible in that she makes them strangely and convincingly palpable. Characters can sometimes divine each other’s thoughts, or see into one another’s fantasies, but it is more than that: it is like an awareness of life at the level of the atom—the sense while a conversation is going on, say, that protons and electrons are furiously swirling—along with a simultaneous awareness of an individual’s identity with respect to time, space, the movement of the planets, and the ongoing evolution of the human species. July’s originality of vision rests on an acute (and astute) awareness of the cosmic and the quotidian, and how human beings are always responding to both at the same time. Here is Cheryl in the bathroom of her idealized love-interest Phillip:
Everything in the bathroom was white. I sat on the toilet and looked at my thighs nostalgically. Soon they would be perpetually entwined in his thighs, never alone, not even when they wanted to be. But it couldn’t be helped. We had a good run, me and me. I imagined shooting an old dog, an old faithful dog, because that’s what I was to myself. Go on, boy, get it. I watched myself dutifully trot ahead. Then I lowered my rifle and what actually happened was I began to have a bowel movement. It was unplanned, but once begun it was best to finish. I flushed and washed my hands and only by luck did I happen to glance back at the toilet. It was still there. One had to suppose it was the dog, shot, but refusing to die. This could get out of hand. I could flush and flush and Philip would wonder what was going on and I’d have to say, The dog won’t die gracefully.
Is the dog yourself, as you’ve known yourself until now?
No need to kill it, my sweet girl, he’d say, reaching into the toilet bowl with a slotted spoon. We need a dog.
But it’s old and has strange, unchangeable habits.
So do I, my dear. So do we all.
I flushed again and it went down. I could tell him about it later.
This kind of fiction is, as I described in my review of Donald Antrim’s The Emerald Light in the Air, “a more total realism.” It’s a total kind of experience, too, and one I think everybody should have, though I worry how accessible this book will be to the “average reader,” or what Flannery O’Connor called “the tired reader.” I suspect that many will read this novel and wonder what it is “about,” and that many more will stop reading for the same reason. I hope Ms. July proves me wrong and that her novel gets the kind of large-scale readership it deserves (well, large-scale in these times, whatever that means).
Two weeks after finishing the book I am still carrying around in my own inner life the inner life of the novel’s protagonist and narrator, the middle-aged nebbish Cheryl Glickman. She is an astounding creation, and the sum total of the book is the sum total of her creation and evolution in the reader’s mind, or, better, consciousness. We live with her; by turns we love her and despise her and pity her—until at last we agree to slip inside her skin and become her. We inhabit her and she inhabits us, and we cannot ask more from any novel and are lucky to get as much. Alas, such fiction that makes Cheryl Glickman live in the world and in the hearts of readers is not easy fiction, although one of the many paradoxes the book turns on is that it is, in a strange and perhaps new sense of the term, a page-turner, for one reason because of July’s readable, direct, economical—and genuinely poetic—prose style, which exhibits none of the preciosity that has characterized (and cluttered) so much contemporary fiction:
The only way I could get to Ralphs quickly enough was to run. The urgency predated cars—it had to be me alone thrusting through space, chest out, hair blown back. Each driver show saw me thought, She is running for her life, she will die if she doesn’t get there, and they were right. Except it was quite a bit farther on foot than I had anticipated, and the rain had thickened. My clothes became heavy with water, my face was washed again and again. Each driver who passed me thought, She is a giant rat or some other wet, craven animal whose hunger strips her of her dignity. And they were right.
The transformation of the ordinary into the extraordinary that distinguishes July’s fiction is accomplished through an imaginative energy that is importantly and essentially dramatic rather than rhetorical. July’s prose style creates a reading experience that is always working on us vertically as well as horizontally, and so always resonating emotionally—even if we don’t always like the emotions that are resonating. The large difference between the short stories and the novel is that the latter experience page by page is not always as enjoyable, and not always as funny. In fact, the first half of the book is frustrating in a number of ways, and it takes a special kind of patience and engagement to read this work of literature—for literature it surely is. Several times early on I put the book down wondering if I was going to pick it up again—which I always did, and sometimes within minutes. Much that July does in that first half, and, one could argue, throughout the book, seems manipulative in a way that we are not accustomed to in “literary fiction.”
The object of Cheryl’s fantasy life, a wealthy sixty-five-year-old named Phillip, in turn desires a sixteen-year-old girl named Kirsten, and the attraction seems mutual—is reported as mutual. Most readers will have a fairly predictable reaction to such a situation, and one that includes moral outrage. Phillip does some strange and seemingly comic things within that triangle, and there is a motif involving texting that I took initially as not-quite-successful George Saunders, then later reconsidered as something else entirely. So much of the book and what it finally amounts to is subject to reconsideration—as is so much of life as we live it and then remember it and reflect upon it. The book changes as it moves forward, is again a different book by the time we have put it down, then different again a week or two later. Everything in the novel is subject to change and reappraisal; Cheryl Glickman is not an unreliable narrator, but she does lead a highly unreliable life. Don’t we all?
I came to The First Bad Man as a fan of July’s short stories, expecting the same kind of off-kilter humor that provides payoff and enjoyment page by page but getting something else that I initially thought was part of an unsuccessful novel—a short story writer trying the same things she is known for in her short stories and not quite achieving them on the larger canvas. Characters and events are set up to seem funny, might be funny at first, but then are not really funny at all—they are sad and frequently painful. The other object of Cheryl’s fantasy life, and much more a part of her daily life than Phillip, is Clee, the twenty-year-old daughter of her employers who has been unceremoniously dumped on her. Clee is a type, and would seem at first to be an object of satire of that type—the twenty-year-old narcissistic slacker-girl whose identity resides mostly in her tits and ass and what she wants right now (hello Kardashians!)—but she says and does things, especially in the first half of the book, that made me hate her.
This aspect of the novel’s emotional content is fascinating to me because as a liberal, educated, middle-aged, middle-class white American person I seldom feel hatred for other people, and because we seldom if ever experience hatred for characters in literary fiction. Cheryl’s response to Clee’s cruelty is a kind of patient masochism, and they end up playing an extended, sado-masochistic “game” that caused me much discomfort. That game comes and goes, Clee changes, then changes again, and I ended up having a very different understanding of and compassion for Clee, but initially I did not like the kind of manipulation I associate with genre fiction or Criminal Minds-style TV, and took it as a flaw in the book. This kind of emotional manipulation, which changes to a more positive version in the second half, is part of a larger sense of the author controlling things in a way that we readers of subtly plotted, or even plotless, literary fiction are not used to. July drops characters in, and when she doesn’t need them anymore she takes them out. They have whatever sexual orientation she tells them to have, whenever she needs them to have it. We can see pretty clearly the machinery of the novel as a novel, with the characters doing as they are told, and, it seems, the reader as well.
The most seemingly obvious, clunky, and unconvincing turn of plot is when Clee falls in love with Cheryl and they become a couple. As with some other features of the story, I didn’t quite believe it but went along with it, only to learn that it was more complicated than I had thought, and so learned about Clee as a more complex character than I had taken her for. I am trying to get this far in my criticism of the book while keeping the spoilers to a minimum, which is hard, for this book is very actively plotted and paced. Clee and Phillip do attain depth and complexity—they are fascinating round characters who nevertheless end up static (read the book and let me know what you think: plenty of room here for counterargument). They are types who fascinate us not with predictable behavior that becomes unpredictable, but with unpredictable behavior that we see, in the long view, really was predictable. We come away with a new understanding of these cultural types and the lengths to which they will go to survive—for survival and the various levels and dimensions of what it means to survive as a human being is surely what this book is about.
It’s a knee-jerk reaction to condemn Phillip as a child molester, and Clee as a cruel and vapid narcissist, but that is only a surface, as so much of the book is about surface and what lies beneath, and there is a deeper and much less clichéd moral sense at work in this novel—really more like a moral force—that seems to allow humans the maximum freedom of action while despising cant, artifice, pretension, manipulation, and all the other forms of dishonesty that lead to moral slavery. Perhaps on one level July is saying, Look, this is a novel and I’m not going to pretend it’s not a novel, with all the conventions and manipulations of a novel, for one reason because that might cause me to pretend other things I shouldn’t pretend—like pretending rape is sex, or violence and vulgarity are entertainment. Miranda July is a pen name that signifies freedom, and a particularly American sense of freedom—Miranda, as in you have the right to, and July, as in the Fourth of—and the most negative or unsympathetic characters are those who cannot get free of their own destructive dreams and fantasies, the lies of their prepackaged narratives and manipulations, the self-deception that endlessly confuses one thing with another. The moral slaves in this novel are those who steadfastly believe their own bullshit.
By the end of the book it is Cheryl Glickman who is most free. Cheryl is the true survivor of the book (if the novel were a TV show by that name), and my reading of The First Bad Man is that it is an exquisite portrait of an individual of our own uncertain times who changes and grows toward moral freedom and survival in ways that are surprising, strange, and aesthetically thrilling. The medium of prose fiction is not so much the page and the word but the reader’s psyche, and that is where Cheryl ends up in all her glorious complexity and, yes indeed, her triumph. The title of the novel implies moral judgment, perhaps, or something to do with morality, even as Clee and Phillip do seem to be characters who are judged by the unconventional and not-always-funny “satire” that is one of the cornerstones of the novel; but those judgments of Clee and Phillip, and of Cheryl herself, are ultimately qualified, reversed, overturned—made as plastic as July’s sense of what human beings are and what they are capable of—for good and for ill. But let’s be clear: saying that one person may become another, and that we might see the same person in a very different way, is not the same as saying that one situation or action is another: that violence and cruelty can be enjoyed as “games,” for example, or shrugged off as mere abstractions.
The paradox that morality is fixed but human beings constantly moving is finally what the book is about, though the three principals, and especially the narrator, do very much achieve specific gravity as it corresponds to the moral weight of the drama. If Clee and Phillip are characters who represent ideas, or modes of morality July would like us to consider, they are so in a Dostoevskian sense of such ideas embodied in the flesh. Even Cheryl’s therapist, a minor character who is an object of broad satire but also pity, is much more than a paper doll. Shaw in his “Preface” to Saint Joan writes that “A genius is a person who, seeing farther and probing deeper than other people, has a different set of ethical valuations from theirs, and has energy enough to give effect to this extra vision and its valuations in whatever manner best suits his or her specific talents.” Ms. July’s fictional art as concerned with her own unique vision of human morality is first and foremost an incarnational art, and one that concerns itself with human possibility and freedom as those ideas get worked out in the world of flesh and blood, i.e. with consequences.
In the same way, and despite all the seeming manipulation and artifice, I do think July offers us readers used to Chekhovian “sympathetic detachment” the freedom to make up our own minds, but it takes the entire process and progress of the book to set it in place so that we can have all the information and finally “decide.” One might argue that that is the cardinal flaw in a first novel written by a short story writer according to the principles of the short story, i.e. the short story is short so we can get all the information quickly and then turn it around in our hands and hold it up to the light and see the different sides and dimensions of what we’ve been presented with, much as we can with the lyric poem. The novel, such thinking argues, works according to different principles, or should, since in this case it takes 276 pages for all the information to fall into place, instead of the typical short story envelope of 10-25. Perhaps, perhaps, but remember that Ms. July is also a visual artist and a film maker, and so this novel works according to what I might call a pictorial or painterly approach to form, which relates to the visual arts but also to the dream world and how we experience dreams, which is all at once. So much of what is going on in the book has to do with the author’s and characters’ investigation of “reality,” and so much of the life depicted is the stuff of dreams and fantasy, and the difficulty of penetrating through the bullshit into the real, that this approach to form can be justified with respect to the content of the book. Essential to July’s moral vision seems to be an odd but unshakeable sense that life is happening all at once, an eternal moment in which all things are possible.
Miranda July does finally get down to her own wonderfully complex and convincing definition of what is “real,” and what “reality” is, and she does it in her own way, on her own terms, and in her own good time. This is a readable novel that is difficult to get through, a depressing book that is uplifting—a book that is likely to give many readers trouble throughout the reading process, and beyond—and it would be trite for me now to say that that difficulty is part and parcel of their own complex, contradictory, and duplicitous lives, which they might not be willing to confront, their complaints about the book July’s very judgment upon them, so I will end by saying instead that in the end Ms. July gives us an exhilarating and dramatically realized representation of human possibility, and that for all the negative emotion she leaves us with a vision of human nature and free will in which all things are possible, though certainly not suggesting that all things are permissible.
The First Bad Man is the kind of novel you need to read to the last sentence before deciding how you feel about it. Some readers might not make it that far, and that will be too bad for them, and for our literature, too, for this novel is one sure indication of where American fiction is going, whether we want it to go there or not, and I suspect that a readership will grow into this kind of fiction by stages and degrees, as happened with Faulkner and Joyce and Virginal Woolf. It’s too early yet to say if Ms. July is our latest best hope for a contemporary writer of that stature, and let’s not canonize her on the strength of two very fine and highly original works of fiction. Let’s read them, admire them, and look forward to seeing what else she has in that magic bag of hers.
Anthony Wallace‘s collection of short stories The Old Priest won the 2013 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was first reviewed by Roberta Silman in The Arts Fuse. The book went on to become a finalist for the 2014 PEN/Hemingway Award. More on Anthony Wallace and his collection The Old Priest.