It seems that everywhere I go these days, everyone is talking about female sexuality: Fifty Shades of Grey, to name one omnipresent example, plus Lena Dunham and Girls, and of course the ongoing national debate about rape and the many, many levels of consent one must pass through before a sex act can be sanctioned by the media machine. I was bored before the debate even started, and I’ll admit that I didn’t expect anyone to come along who could present female sexuality in a new and untested way. But then Miranda July’s The First Bad Man happened.
The first-person narrator of this novel is Cheryl Glickman. Cheryl is a woman in her forties, and she lives alone. She works for an organization called Open Palm, which creates exercise videos based on self-defense situations. The organization was originally founded to teach in-person self-defense classes, but many years ago it was Cheryl who came up with the idea of using the techniques of self-defense to create exercise videos. Because these videos are very profitable, Cheryl has a certain honored status at work and knows she won’t be fired, although at the beginning of the novel she reveals that “[her boss] told me my managerial style is more effective from a distance, so my job was now work-from-home though I was welcome to come in once a week and for board meetings” (20).
Cheryl has a number of unusual beliefs. Not only does she believe in reincarnation, but she also believes that she and Phillip – a board member at Open Palm – have known each other through countless lifetimes: “Caveman and cave woman. King and queen. Nuns” (12). She also believes that the soul of a baby she bonded with once when she was nine years old gets routinely stuck inside the body of other babies and will forever be lonely and upset because it is isolated from Cheryl. She calls that soul “Kubelko Bondy,” which she thinks is the name of the baby she held when she was nine, even though her mother assures her that she never knew a baby with that name. Cheryl routinely does things like sidle up to pregnant women in public and have whispered conversations with their unborn fetuses to find out if they are or are not Kubelko Bondy.
(Brief aside here: Cheryl is nuts and all, but I totally had a Kubelko-Bondy experience when I was a kid too. I think I was thirteen. I could tell you the baby’s name if I wanted to, but I won’t because this is the internet and that would be creepy. That baby would be about twenty-six now. I thought about him almost constantly while I was reading this book, and I wondered what he’s doing now and hoped he doesn’t work in a fast food restaurant – but I definitely do NOT think he is being repeatedly born in the bodies of other babies. Definitely not.)
At the outset of the novel, Cheryl’s bosses, Suzanne and Carl, who are a married couple, inform Cheryl that she will be hosting their adult daughter, Clee, at her home. Another staff member at Open Palm had been hosting her but had changed her mind. Suzanne and Carl are interested in Japanese culture, which in their case seems mostly to mean that they are very passive aggressive but want to pass off their passive-aggression as a cultural choice rather than a personality flaw. “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” (19), Cheryl reflects. Of course Cheryl doesn’t even come close to having the wherewithal to say no to Carl and Suzanne, so Clee soon arrives on Cheryl’s doorstep. She is sullen and snippy and has an unpleasant odor, and she eats nothing but frozen meals and never turns off the TV.
While all of these preliminaries are being hammered out, Cheryl spends a great deal of her time being obsessed with Phillip, the Open Palm board member with whom she has shared countless past lives. Early in the novel, he confesses to her that he is dating a sixteen year-old named Kirsten. Philip himself is in his sixties. He tells Cheryl that he wants her “blessing” of his relationship with Kirsten. “Well, I want to, and she wants to – but the attraction is so powerful that we almost don’t trust it. Is it real or is it just the power of the taboo… I explained how strong you are and how you’re a feminist and you live alone” (47), he says. Cheryl does not give him her blessing; instead, she says that she has to think about it. Soon, Phillip starts sending Cheryl text messages that detail the foreplay he is having with Kirsten. He says that he will not have actual sexual intercourse with Kirsten until they have Cheryl’s “blessing,” but other activities are fair game. “SHE STRIPPED FOR ME,” reads one text. “SAW HER PUSS AND JUGS. UHHH. KEPT MY HANDS TO MYSELF” (72). “BATH. MUTUAL SOAPING BUT NOTHING MORE” (98), reads another.
And then, long story short, Clee starts beating Cheryl up. The first time, Cheryl is spouting out one of her many timid, roundabout monologues in which she tries to suggest that Clee should wash her dishes or use antifungal cream on her feet, and Clee’s response is to pin Cheryl’s timid, shaking body to the wall by pressing the heel of one of her palms into Clee’s solar plexus. Then time passes, during which Cheryl never stops trembling, until Clee’s second attack: “The crook of her arm caught my neck and jerked me backward. I slammed into the couch – the wind knocked out of me. Before I could get my balance she shoved my hip down with her knee. I grabbed at the air stupidly. She pinned my shoulders down, intently watching what the panic was doing to my face. Then she suddenly let go and walked away. I lay there shaking uncontrollably. She locked the bathroom door with a click” (49-50).
Soon Cheryl is goading Clee: she brings self-defense videos home from work and leaves them on the coffee table for Clee to find, and then Clee attacks her in the ways depicted in the videos and she defends herself. At first, they steadfastly avoid speaking about their fights. When Cheryl finally broaches the subject, Clee cuts her off, insisting that she “likes dick.” Cheryl chirps that she shares this affinity, adding to herself, “I saw us in a little dinghy together, liking dick on the big dark sea” (76). Their relationship does head in a sexual direction, however, and the second half of the novel includes their early forays into lesbian sex – played out against the backdrop of Phillip’s text messages about his foreplay with Kirsten, just to keep things weird. It also includes pregnancy and childbirth (and yes, Cheryl does eventually unite with Kubelko Bondy), and Cheryl realizes much too late that Phillip’s texts were meant to initiate flirtation and foreplay with her, that sixteen-year-old Kirsten with her puss and her jugs and her mutual soaping is in fact a work of fiction. And just in case you think I’ve told you way too much about the plot of this novel, think again: I haven’t told you even one little tiny bit about Dr. Jens Broyard and his “receptionist,” Ruth-Anne Tibbets. Consider yourself warned.
I enjoyed this novel for its – well – novelty, but it also annoyed me a bit. Ultimately I didn’t find the relationship between Cheryl and Clee plausible. Some readers might be laughing at me now, thinking that the last thing Miranda July was going for here in this novel is plausibility. But here’s the thing: the world is weird, and novels can (and should) reflect its weirdness. Cheryl and Clee’s passage from awkward hostess and unwelcome guest to assailant and victim to equal partners to co-parents to whatever happens after co-parents (I’m not telling!) could be a fine framework for a novel. But the particular pattern of weirdness in this novel ultimately doesn’t add up to much. Weirdness is piled on weirdness without the novelist giving it any sense of shape. I don’t know exactly what I think should be cut: maybe Cheryl’s New Ageyness? Cheryl could still be drawn to babies without thinking that they might contain the soul of a baby she met 35 years earlier, and she could still be torn and conflicted about her relationship with Phillip without believing that she and he were once cave-people together. Or maybe it’s Cheryl’s odd relationship with her bosses – and her absolute inability to tell them that she doesn’t want to host Clee – that strikes me as fishy. Maybe it would work better if, instead of being the honored employee who led the push to create the profitable exercise videos, Cheryl were on probation at work after an infraction or bad decision of some kind. In that case, she hopes that hosting Clee will redeem her in Suzanne and Carl’s eyes. I just need something more in this novel that links Cheryl to the generally-recognized world of human emotions and behavior. Human behavior is, of course, wildly diverse. As the saying goes, human beings “will try anything once” – and often they will try things a whole lot more than once. Human emotions, however, are more like variations on a theme. We manage our emotions in a wide variety of ways, but the general spectrum of emotion is largely repetitive and well-trodden. Cheryl, however, seems perpetually off-kilter – it’s as if the usual emotions don’t apply to her – and it’s very hard for me to like a novel that tries to tell me as part of its very premise that a protagonist is immune to the spectrum of emotions that apply to the rest of the human race. I am glad that I read this book and certainly want to read more of the author’s work – Miranda July is clearly very talented. This book intrigues me without satisfying me, but I was happy to take the ride.