Miranda July is a defiantly ‘indie’ director. Her films are filled with odd juxtapositions and unusual dialogue, soundtracked by circuit-bent 80’s synths and filled with whimsical ideas. Following a unique collection of short stories, The First Bad Man is her debut novel, and one that lives up to her distinctive sensibilities.
Cheryl is a neurotic middle-aged woman who lives by herself. She lives a quiet and rigid life with everything in its right place, and tries to avoid doing anything as it leaves less of a footprint – but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. She’s also in love with a board member at her job, believing that in past lives they had been lovers, while also feeling a psychic link with various babies. These quirks and eccentricities have built up to the point where anything small could disrupt everything. And then something does.
The daughter of a colleague turns up at her house looking for somewhere to stay, and immediately starts to turn everything upside down. Clee is an imposing houseguest, mean and messy with a sadistic streak; and she soon fills Cheryl’s house with rubbish. Terrified by her new roommate, Cheryl seeks somewhat useless advice from her New-Agey therapist, before turning to self-defence videos. Initially violent, their fights soon start to take on sexual overtones, and Cheryl finds a new obsession, and starts to truly live her life.
There are a lot of bizarre touches and situations. A box of snails arrives at the house and soon infests the house. Unusual Japanese customs are followed incessantly and seemingly without reason. Cheryl’s therapist pretends to be a receptionist for a few days a year as part of a strange sex game. It’s not for the faint of heart – Cheryl’s fantasies and delusions are sexually graphic and often violent which can make sections intentionally challenging and uncomfortable. But it’s not simply setting out to be provocative – there’s a poignancy to the proceedings, and Cheryl’s arc is powerful and surprising.
Cheryl is an unusual and finely crafted character. Unsure of what she really wants, she seems to drift from obsession to obsession, overthinking everything and indulging her own delusions. Unstable to begin with, she slowly grows into herself as she faces her fears and discovers love and motherhood.
It’s not often that you read something that feels genuinely original. This novel gave me that feeling. You can’t (and shouldn’t) predict anything – just settle into the novel and roll with it. It’s constantly engaging, often funny, frequently surreal and filled with a strange kind of warmth. It would be easy for people who haven’t read the book to write it off as a kooky vanity project – but dismissing it as such does it a huge disservice. This is a dazzling and unique novel that will probably end up being one of my most memorable books of 2015.