Miranda July does everything — short stories, apps, films, Sleater-Kinney videos — but The First Bad Man is her first true novel. To explain what it’s about seems futile; not because it’s too complex to untangle, but because the movement of the plot isn’t the point. The joy of Miranda July in text is in the uncomfortable characters, the turns of phrases and the little delights of exploring weird inner lives.
Her critically acclaimed 2005 film Me and You and Everyone We Know was driven by the latter. Each new character was “weird” — meaning deeply insecure, working on it in strange ways, and generally inspiring secondhand embarrassment. At least, that’s the initial, shallow impression. The more their lives unfolded, the more that weirdness was supplanted by earnesty. They weren’t a bunch of oddballs so much as supremely honest people that have tremendous difficulty grappling with life’s normalcy. In that light, who among us doesn’t feel that way all the time? By the end of the film, viewers have their reductive prejudice against weirdos transformed; suddenly, love between two weirdos seems like the purest form of love possible, and we realize that it’s fortunate most everyone is that way.
The engine of The First Bad Man is different. The beating heart love story doesn’t really kick in until halfway through the book, and even after that, it morphs into different kinds of difficult, but loving, relationships. This leaves the book’s first act slightly adrift; as a reader you’re not sure where you’re going or why, so it’s good that the journey is full of actual audible laughs. I made big, stupid grins on the bus multiple times.
If you’ve ever read July, you know what the humor is like: surreal, awkward and imaginative. The humor of Wes Anderson films is a helpful reference, but still a basic and broad comparison. July’s characters are less about their novelty and more about their intense loneliness and the way it’s crafted their atypical lives.
But again, July’s best writing is about love. Her short story anthology, No One Belong Here More Than You, was sprinkled with verses packed with heart, and they stuck in you like heavy song lyrics. When it gets going, this one doesn’t disappoint either:
Sometimes I looked at her sleeping face, the living flesh of it, and was overwhelmed by how precarious it was to love a living thing. She could die simply from lack of water. It hardly seemed safer than falling in love with a plant.
The on-the-nose simplicity and touch of humor is a sweet spot that is hit repeatedly when July is in stride. The First Bad Man‘s main character, the cloistered and obsessive Cheryl Glickman, goes through a gauntlet of relationships. First unrequited, then antagonistic attraction, then non-traditional and finally parental. The defining characteristics of these bonds is mined deeply, and in that way it examines and exaggerates our own difficulties with these relationships. The way Cheryl barely manages the insanities of motherhood isn’t too far from the way you or I might manage it, at least internally.
Every character is off-kilter in their own unique way, even the therapist, who you would think would be Cheryl’s straight man foil that corrects her anxiety-fueled obsessions. You’re the one who establishes normal. The reader is the one who’s supposed to look around incredulously, and that makes reading an enlightening, participatory experience.
It’s not the entry point I’d make into July’s work. Her short stories are still compact pieces of whimsy that constantly surprise. But The First Bad Man is still a valuable part of her body of work by using her beloved style to explore more than just loneliness, but its many salves, both temporary and permanent.
The First Bad Man is out now via Simon and Schuster. Click here for her national tour information, including dates with Lena Dunham.
Justin Pansacola is a writer living in Los Angeles. At the University of California, Riverside he received his degree in Creative Writing, not English, although he has resigned to the fact that no one cares about the difference. You can follow him on Twitter @wordcore. On some nights he looks up at the moon and wonders if you’re looking at the same moon, too.