The First Bad Man
Author: Miranda July
Narrator: Miranda July
Length: 7.5 Hours
Listening to Miranda July read her unforgettable novel, The First Bad Man, was an engrossing experience that provided me with many laughs, surprises, and moments of reflection. Giving voice to her narrator, 43-year-old, Cheryl Glickman, Miranda July creates a story full of the minutiae and inner-musings of a singular, single woman. This debut novel defies categorization. It is sharp, funny, detailed and challenging. July’s narration is the perfect way to hear this story, so much of which comes to us from inside Cheryl’s head. To hear Cheryl’s thoughts conveyed by their original creator provides the listener with extra layer of nuance and knowledge.
As Lauren Groff said in her New York Times review of The First Bad Man, “Cheryl is ...such an acute observer that her life is never as pathetic to the reader as it appears to the people around her.”
When we meet Cheryl, her existence is one of systems and order, fueled by an obsession with Phillip Bettelheim, who serves on the board at Open Palm, where Cheryl is the manager. Open Palm is an organization that teaches self-defense to women as a way to be fit, but, even as manager, Cheryl works primarily from home, per the request of her employers. They seem to feel a little of Cheryl goes a long way. Due to her solitude, many of Cheryl’s interactions with other people are fantastical or imagined. Her life is suddenly disrupted when she asked to take in the daughter of her employers, Clee. Clee turns out to be a challenging roommate in many ways, as she defies Cheryl’s carefully constructed systems and ultimately breaks down Cheryl’s rigidity. The relationship between Cheryl and Clee evolves many times, and passes through some unexpected territory.
July’s novel is an exploration of violence, both real and imagined, sexuality, and physical expression. The most explicit physical of these interactions take place in Cheryl's imagination. In an interview in The Guardian, July explains that “it is perfectly possible for people who live primarily in their own heads (artists, writers, intellectuals) to hanker after a physical communion.” Through Cheryl, July examines and exposes relationships and intimacies. We meet characters, including Cheryl, who are learning to love on different levels, self-love, mother-love, married love, new love, and we see how powerful and terrifying these attachments can be.
“Sometimes I looked at her sleeping face, the living flesh of it, and was overwhelmed by how precarious it was to love a living thing. She could die simply from lack of water. It hardly seemed safer than falling in love with a plant.”
“We thrust our babies into the air again and again, showing them what it felt like to be a mother, to be terrifyingly in love without the option of getting off.”
Parts of the story seem absurd and here is where listening to July’s telling is helpful. Her tone makes us implicit in her folly. July’s writing, while amusing, is also beautiful, poetic and sad and her reading of it is at times, breathtaking.
“But as the sun rose I crested the mountain of my self-pity and remembered I was always going to die at the end of this life anyway. What did it really matter if I spent it like this—caring for this boy—as opposed to some other way? I would always be earthbound; he hadn’t robbed me of my ability to fly or to live forever. I appreciated nuns now, not the conscripted kind, but modern women who chose it. If you were wise enough to know that this life would consist mostly of letting go of things you wanted, then why not get good at the letting go, rather than the trying to have?"
I found everything about this book to be unique from its absurdities to its breathtaking moments, many of which I rewound to hear again. The First Bad Man will appeal to fans of Lena Dunham, Maggie Nelson, and Carrie Brownstein.