THE DEFINING MOMENT of the 2005 movie Me and You and Everyone We Know is this: two brothers, six and 14 years old, sit in front of a computer pretending to be an older man in a chatroom, cybersexing with someone they assume is a woman. The older brother asks the younger brother what they should write. “I want to poop back and forth,” the younger boy gently says. The older brother laughs, but asks him what he means. “Like, I’ll poop into her butthole,” the boy slowly explains, “and she’ll poop it back into my butthole and then we’ll just keep doing it back and forth. With the same poop. Forever.”
This scene captures the worldview of Miranda July, who wrote, directed, and starred in the film. Genuine weirdness ensues from outsiders searching for some measure of connection along the margins of the modern world while small, strange moments of human interaction — perverse and aberrant at first — upon reflection turn oddly warm, tender, and poetic. Beyond that, July extends a bottomless sympathy to her characters, their suffering, and their humanity.
Critical discussion of the work of Miranda July, who made her fiction debut in 2007 with the remarkable story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You, tends to dwell on its thorough indieness and twee sensibility. But fundamentally, July’s art is really more about outsiders, loneliness, alienation, and a deeply felt conviction to live each moment meaningfully, which in July’s performative vision of humanity is to live as if one were always onstage, being watched by an audience of all the people one admired most in the world. This extreme self-consciousness certainly runs counter to the exhortation for one to “dance like nobody’s watching,” and July’s work can indeed be viewed as problematically narcissistic, but July’s vision also displays how vital relationships and social bonds are to her, especially for characters who are deprived of nurturing human connections.
So meet Cheryl Glickman, the odd, beautifully derailed main character of July’s debut novel The First Bad Man. She’s middle-aged, lives alone, and is afflicted with globus hystericus — a recurring lump in her throat. She’s told she’s shaped like a pear, and likes to think of her looks as “a little Julie Andrews, a little Geraldine Ferraro.” She knows few people aside from her co-workers at Open Palm, the women’s self-defense nonprofit where, for twenty-five years now, she’s been unappreciated and progressively marginalized. Here is a typical workplace interaction with her boss:
Once Carl had called me ginjo, 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.
“In the old myths he burns his clothes and then his bones to keep it going,” Carl said. I made myself very still so he would continue; I love to be described. “Then he has to find something else to keep the fire going so he has ubitsu. There’s no easy translation for that, but basically they are dreams so heavy that they have infinite mass and weight. He burns those and the fire never goes out.” Then he told me my managerial style was more effective from a distance, so my job was now work-from-home though I was welcome to come in one day a week and for board meetings.
Cheryl’s numerous, madcap existentialist struggles, detailed in July’s distinctively quirky manner, are the main thrust of the book. Caught in an obsessive, imaginary love affair with Open Palm board member Phillip, Cheryl believes their souls have been intertwined in “a hundred thousand lifetimes of making love.” Phillip’s current incarnation, however, barely registers her existence. Still, Cheryl lives her life as if she was “starring in a movie Phillip was watching.”
Writing about July’s first book in The Guardian, Josh Lacey wrote:
Fantasy is vital to July’s characters. Her stories are populated by sad, lonely, isolated people who feel a terrible dissatisfaction with the failure of their lives to match the drama and intensity of their dreams.
This disconnect between fantasy and drab reality permeates The First Bad Man. Cheryl’s life is circumscribed by a system of signs and symbols. Ripping a piece of paper with someone’s name written on it, she believes, will make that person call you on the phone. Her own biases and unfounded hopes are based on intuition and a belief in mystical truth.
But more intense, private fantasies operate as load-bearing structures in her life. In addition to her multi-lifetime love affair with Phillip, Cheryl perpetually encounters by another reincarnated soul: a baby named Kubelko Bondy, who is one baby “played” — or hosted — “by many babies.” Cheryl wonders: “Why had this soul been circling me for so long? Did it stay young or was it getting older too? And would it eventually give up on me?” Yet Cheryl doesn’t confront the proposition that perhaps what she wants is the mysterious, inherently human experience of motherhood.
All this fantasy belies a lonely and dim reality for Cheryl. Phillip doesn’t love her; he loves a 16-year-old in his craniosacral certification class. And Kubelko, whose baby soul is inextricably connected to Cheryl’s, “keep[s] getting born to the wrong people,” perpetually entering Cheryl’s life only to disappointedly exit it over and over again. Cheryl is haunted by her unconditional aloneness:
My eyes fell on the gray linoleum floor and I wondered how many other women had sat on this toilet and stared at this floor. Each of them the center of their own world, all of them yearning for someone to put their love into so they could see their love, see that they had it. Oh, Kubelko, my boy, it’s been so long since I held you. I lowered my elbows to my knees and dropped my heavy head into my palms.
The desire to love and be loved, a central concern of the novel, is dramatized in two ways: sexuality and motherhood. Both arrive in the narrative with Clee, the aggressive and self-absorbed boss’s daughter whom Cheryl is forced to take in. Clee barges full of sound and fury into Cheryl’s tidy, uptight world. Blessed, or cursed, with a comically voluptuous body, Clee is ogled and objectified by every man she encounters, which is perhaps the cause of her derisive, cruel streak. Cheryl’s inability to connect to the social world around her leads to fabulist bouts of fantasy, but Clee’s alienation explodes outward through anger and violence. The two women soon become caught up in a series of physical altercations, which gradually evolve into a kind of game arranged around simulated attacks gleaned from poorly produced women’s self-defense tapes. “Simulating,” Cheryl calls it.
My favorite moments were right before the assault — lounging on the park bench, walking casually to the front door. My hair felt long and heavy on my back; I swung my hips a little, knowing I was being watched, hunted even. It was interesting to be this kind of person, so unself-conscious and exposed, so feminine.
The mock assaults turn increasingly intimate and sexual, and add a transgressively kinky edge to the novel. Like the back-and-forth scene from Me and You and Everyone We Know, the women’s faux combat becomes a poignant dramatization of human connection. Through the fantasy of these “adult games,” Cheryl is forced by her attacker to experience her life rather than simply imagine it. As the fantasies within fantasies fall away, Cheryl is compelled to face her hidden desire for Clee. For her part, Clee drags Cheryl into the light of day “just like a bad man, the kind that comes to a sleepy town and makes all kinds of trouble before galloping off again.”
In all mediums she’s worked in — performance art, filmmaking, fiction — Miranda July has shown that she’s a humanist above all. The First Bad Man furthers this idea, but also displays a blossoming maturity, accessibility, and philosophical depth. Take Cheryl’s fascination with reincarnation: returning to life after death is, in a way, what happens to Cheryl as she discovers the freedom to determine the warp and woof of her own life. Her path toward empowerment reveals July’s underlying aim to reimagine what it means to be a woman with full agency, sexual expression, and personal meaning in the 21st century. In the course of discovering her own femininity and maternal gifts, Cheryl attains freedom and self-knowledge, and July has crafted the most illuminating and certainly funniest feminist novel in recent memory.
Shane Joaquin Jimenez is a writer living in Portland, Oregon.