The week that I was reading Miranda July’s debut novel The First Bad Man, I spent a lot of time in airports, where all the newsstands were emblazoned with the new issue of Rolling Stone, featuring on its cover the rapper Nicki Minaj. The cover photo is confrontational: In the top half, Minaj stares out with IDGAF matter-of-factness; the bottom half of the image is dominated by Minaj’s magnificent breasts, just barely made modest, if hardly contained, by white fabric strips of tank top. Inside the magazine, Minaj talks about the struggle to figure out how to funnel her personal experiences into her work in a world in which “you gotta watch everything you say—people find an issue with every fucking thing.”
This is a pretty succinct summing-up of our cultural moment, in which provocative self-display often fronts for fear of true self-revelation, and in which art and commentary both are rarely allowed to exist in the ether for long before they become grist for attacks and counterattacks, which, inevitably, distort the original beyond all recognition. There’s a misconception that we’re living in a time of over-sharing; in fact, it’s more accurately a time of managed sharing, of shaping our shares to either avoid conflict or instigate it. From filtered selfies to blogged polemics designed to dominate the outrage cycle of any given day, there’s maybe never been more manufacturing of confessional impulse. It’s become incredibly difficult for anyone, public figure or not, to speak their truth without pre-calculating how much shit they’re willing to take for it, and calibrating their message accordingly. If you are like me, maybe you’ve acknowledged to yourself or your friends that this climate is compelling you to self-censor in a variety of different ways, but I think Minaj is the first artist that I’ve seen publicly acknowledge that even her self-consciously “personal” album was hedged by these concerns.
This is the world in which July—the artist/author/performer perhaps best known as writer/director/actress of two films, Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future—has released her debut novel. The First Bad Man is a brave undertaking for July, and not just because it finds her committing to long-form storytelling without a visual element for the first time. It incorporates a boldly feminist recasting of familiar tropes and genres, without worrying itself over empowerment at the expense of emotional honesty. But it’s also about weakness, self-delusion, and fear, and without really concerning itself too directly with the topic of the Internet or pop culture on the whole, its area of inquiry isn’t far off from Minaj’s Rolling Stone admission.
It’s the story of Cheryl, an aggressively polite fortysomething who is entering her third decade in employ at Open Palm, an organization which was once a nonprofit promoting self-defense education for women, and which now produces lucrative exercise videos utilizing the jab-and-kick building blocks of their previous Model Mugging-style simulations. The videos, Cheryl is quick and proud to note, were her idea, but instead of heralding Cheryl’s contributions, the staff and bosses at Open Palm treat her as an overly solicitous doormat—a role she accepts, fittingly, without protest.
Cheryl is well aware that she’s become virtually a nonentity—she even celebrates it. In her first-person narration, she describes a housekeeping “system” she’s created so that, by using things like dishes and books at an absolute minimum, she doesn’t really ever have to clean. When the system’s working, Cheryl explains, “my days become dreamlike, no edges anywhere, none of the snags and snafus that life is famous for. After days and days alone it gets silky to the point where I can’t even feel myself anymore, it’s as if I don’t exist.”
And then, under duress, which she dutifully swallows, Cheryl agrees to open up her home to Clee, the 21-year-old daughter of the founders of Open Palm. Clee is a whirling dervish of callow youth who upends Cheryl’s home, and kicks her fantasy life into heretofore-unknown high gears. Clee’s host becomes preoccupied with the aspects of Clee which make Cheryl feel uncomfortable: her hip-hop literacy, her unwillingness to eat anything but TV dinners in front of the TV, and her voluptuous body, always spilling out of too-casual sportswear. When they first meet, Cheryl observes that the barely-legal Clee was “so much of a woman that for a moment I wasn’t sure what I was.” (Cheryl also takes note of Clee’s “aggressively blank expression,” which is a better way of describing what’s happening on Nicki Minaj’s face on the Rolling Stone cover than my description above, and which made me imagine as I read that Clee looked and moved like Minaj, except white and blond.) In a twist on the standard romantic comedy template, Clee and Cheryl start out as enemies, become collaborators, and then fall in love. The “twist” is that during the enemy phase, the two women launch a kind of two-woman fight club, with their raw aggression toward one another eventually incorporating role-playing borrowed from Open Palm’s self-defense productions; their collaboration is a baby, carried by Clee and nurtured by Cheryl; and their romance doesn’t have a traditional happy ending.
In The First Bad Man, July shows us a planet on which in no two grown humans live the same experience; they’re all wandering around in astronaut helmets full of swirling private language, and the best anyone can hope for is that their head bubble will form a kind of Venn diagram with someone else’s head bubble, if only for a little while. Everything is S&M: the fear of self-expression is so acute that adults ask one another for permission before they act, signing contracts to police their interpersonal interactions, and transferring their desires into what Cheryl’s therapist Ruth-Anne calls “an immensely satisfying adult game.” Cheryl and Clee’s hand-to-hand combat has a tangible effect on Cheryl’s life—her psychosomatic illnesses clear up, and right away she feels a kind of liberation: “This was the opposite of getting mugged. I’d been mugged every single day of my life and this was the first day I wasn’t mugged.” But she also tells herself it’s not real: “This wasn’t anything, just a re-creation of a simulation of the kind of thing that might happen to a woman if she didn’t keep her wits about her.”
Though this is her first novel, July is an accomplished writer of short fiction, and within The First Bad Man live a handful of perfectly drawn short stories, such as when Cheryl shows up for an appointment and accidentally overhears a painful exchange between Ruth-Anne and her own partner in “adult games.” The tissue connecting these segments into an overarching narrative is sometimes a bit too neat (coincidences abound), and sometimes compromised by the fact that Cheryl spends much of the book as a pathologically solipsistic unreliable narrator, although that’s also a selling point—July has an enviable talent for sketching inner life as all-consuming.
The First Bad Man’s depiction of emotional compartmentalization is a new spin on an old theme for July. Her most recent film, 2011’s The Future, begins in a relatively familiar indie relationship mode, and then, in its final act, breaks into a kind of science fiction—as though the movie itself has a dissociative disorder that causes it to adopt alternate personalities in order to get through the really difficult stuff without assuming personal responsibility. Oddly, at its least “real,” The Future felt the most honest and direct. The idea of telling the truth through a detour manifested itself again in 2014, when July released an art project in the form of an iPhone app called Somebody, which allows one person to send a message to another through a third party, often a stranger who, GPS reveals, is in current close proximity to the receiver. The third party must deliver the message in person. In a statement about Somebody, July wrote that the app “twists our love of avatars and outsourcing—every relationship becomes a three-way. The antithesis of the utilitarian efficiency that tech promises, here, finally, is an app that makes us nervous, giddy, and alert to the people around us.”
I mean, sure, but it’s also a way of shifting responsibility for what you want onto someone you probably don’t even know. I guess this is cute if you use the app to bring something positive into a person’s life—and this is the only way I imagine people actually use it. If you were to use it, to borrow a line from a Dazed piece about the app, to fulfill your secret wish that “a stranger could break up with someone for you,” you would deserve the shaming that would no doubt rain down on you from the Internet as a result.
But that doesn’t mean something like Somebody couldn’t be used to spread unhappiness, and July’s clearly aware of this. In The First Bad Man, a couple of relationships “become a three-way” in their own fashion, with Cheryl ever the conduit for other people’s self-realization and satisfaction, to the point where in one chapter she becomes afflicted with compulsive sexual fantasies in which she controls or even embodies the “stiff members” employed by what she imagines are an infinite number of men attempting to satisfy Clee’s insatiable lust. In the novel, as the plot churns along with Cheryl its ever unsuspecting and guileless narrator, this “outsourcing” process feels at best melancholy, and at worst, literally perverted, with none of the utopian potential July ascribes to Somebody.
July’s interest in transference becomes more, for lack of a better word, fertile, when you consider the ways in which July may be using The First Bad Man as a vehicle for masking (and thus safely airing) her own feelings about motherhood. (She gave birth to a son in 2012.) The book includes what seem like unvarnished observations on thorny issues like motherhood’s impact on personhood: “Any time I was alone now I dropped into a stunned stupor, holding my forearms and trying to locate the old me in this new life. Usually I didn’t get very far—Jack cried and I streamed into motion, forgetting myself again.” But with its near-magical realist flourishes (the sexual fantasies that bleed into real life, and vice versa; a minor subplot in which Cheryl’s house becomes infested with snails) and characters and relationships that seem to intentionally strain credulity, sometimes it feels like The First Bad Man works too hard at building layers of boxes in which July can bury such kernels gleaned from real life.
Hardly blind to this busyness, July mirrors such systematic distancing in her story. For instance, Clee doesn’t want to tell Cheryl the name of her baby’s father, and so she writes it down on a piece of paper and puts the paper in a sealed envelope and puts the envelope in a place where she think it can’t be disturbed. But Cheryl does disturb it, and she takes it to Ruth-Anne and asks the therapist to open the envelope, write the name on another piece of paper, hide that new name-branded slip in a place where Cheryl can’t easily get to it, and put the original piece of paper back in a new sealed envelope which Cheryl can put back in Clee’s original hiding place. At the end of this activity, Ruth-Anne claims she has indulged her patient’s “[wanting] to play like a little girl.”
Within the context of July’s work, The First Bad Man feels, if not exactly regressive, than not quite a giant leap forward. And yet within the context of the wider world—in which all speech is policed, but especially women’s stories about their uniquely feminine personal experiences—The First Bad Man feels visionary. Maybe everyone is crippled by their awareness that “people find an issue with every fucking thing,” and probably a lot of people who express themselves for a living are withholding or mutating what they really think and feel because of that. But few have Miranda July’s almost clinical facility with dissecting these types of processes, or her particular talent for couching what feel like naked, universal truths in clouds of the imagined and the impossible.
The First Bad Man by Miranda July. Scribner.