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Review: ‘The First Bad Man’ by Miranda July

I’m sure the Germans must have a word for it: that sense that some people are hogging more than their fair share of talent and inspiration; the suspicion that certain individuals have smuggled oversized plates into the all-you-can-eat restaurant of human talent and have set themselves up at the tables closest to the buffet. People like Miranda July, the writer, filmmaker and visual and performance artist who, with the publication of The First Bad Man, has now added novel writing to her frankly already overstrung bow.
Cheryl Glickman, the protagonist of July’s excellent debut, has, in her own phrase, a bad relationship with herself. In her early forties with a stalled and unsatisfying career, she has regimented her solitary home life into a stultifying system of chore management (‘like a rich
person, I live with a full-time servant who keeps everything in order – and because the servant is me, there’s no invasion of privacy’) while at the same time becoming romantically fixated on an older man who is not only indifferent to but also utterly unworthy of her. And to make matters worse, she has a really bad case of globular hystericus. This obsessively ordered yet deeply dysfunctional state of affairs is turned upside down by the arrival in her life – and, to her even deeper dismay, her home – of Clee Stengl, her employers’ sullen and inscrutable daughter who seems intent on eking her adolescence out into her early twenties and beyond if she can get away with it.
It’s fair to say this ‘odd couple’ pairing of Cheryl and Clee is far from the most original premise and the ensuing clash of personalities would feel familiar enough were it not for July’s superb ear for dialogue, precision comic timing and wonderfully warped world view. (Like George Saunders, she has a gift for depicting a world that is apparently the reader’s own but as if from a brand new and strange, distorting angle.) What’s more, as the relationship between the two women develops, The
First Bad Man goes beyond being simply (simply!) a work of fine comic craftsmanship and takes on a darkly discomfiting and disturbing tone before resolving itself into something altogether more emotionally engaging and quietly profound. Admittedly in this final section the plot (though not the style) does start to feel increasingly conventional and, consequently, predictable (all but the least attentive readers will see the final chapter revelation coming from a mile away), but by that stage you’ll be so invested in Cheryl that it hardly matters and the final few pages are as moving and as lovely as any fiction you’ll read this year. That July pulls off these potentially tricky tonal shifts without compromising her highly original and idiosyncratic narrative voice is testament to her considerable skills as novelist.
The First Bad Man is published by Canongate and is available from Golden Hare Books now.