01/13/2015 08:56 am ET Updated Jan 13, 2015

The Book We're Talking About: 'The First Bad Man' By Miranda July


The First Bad Man
by Miranda July
Scribner, $25.00
Publishes January 13, 2015

What we think:
It’s not surprising that Miranda July’s first novel was praised by Lena Dunham, who lauded her “ability to pervert norms while embracing what makes us normal.” Like Dunham, much of July’s work seems to center on offhanded descriptions of kinky sex. Also like Dunham, the artist, writer and filmmaker’s humor is self-deprecating. Fans of both writers seem to appreciate the frankness with which they confront taboos, and the wacky predicaments they construct around their fumbling characters.

But, both Dunham’s “Girls” and July’s work, which includes two films, a short story collection, and now a novel, seem to beckon vocal detractors. In July’s case, it’s easy to mock her too-precious plots -- whether or not meaning is burrowed beneath their cloying cuteness seems, thus far, to be a crapshoot.

In The First Bad Man, frumpy, middle-aged Cheryl is governed by her personal routine, which involves punching the clock at a self-defense video nonprofit, exchanging niceties with her potentially homeless gardener, and lusting after a member of her company’s board, the suave and silver-haired Philip. Her hopes are high that a chance encounter with him in the waiting room of his Chromotherapist’s office (yes, that’s color therapy -- our story takes place in Los Angeles) will allow him to remember the centuries-long bond she is sure they share. Instead, her carefully deliberated days are unpleasantly disrupted when her bosses’ daughter, a messy, burly bombshell named Clee, is plopped onto her couch against her will and for an indeterminate amount of time. Spurred on by Clee’s self-proclaimed misogyny and Cheryl’s memorization of the dialogue in Open Palm’s self-defense videos, the two agree to begin fighting violently whenever the mood strikes.

The surreal set-up is an excellent stage for examining the absurdity of certain gender norms, and July does so pithily: “That’s the problem with men my age,” she says of longing for Philip. “I’m somehow older than them.” Unfortunately, these smart non-sequiturs aren’t strung together by a cohesive or plausible story -- even within the world of July’s subverted social strictures, the actions of her characters are bizarre and inconsistent. They don’t evolve so much as undulate wildly -- often for the sake of laughs, which, to July's credit, are plentiful. Clee's hatred towards women inexplicably snaps into her identification as a lesbian. This could've been a nuanced take on the convoluted ways we realize our sexuality, but instead was played out as an uncomplicated comedic routine. Similarly, self-possessed but lonely Cheryl morphs into a super-mom on autopilot in no time -- too few pages are given to her sudden lack of autonomy, and she thoughtlessly accepts her role as the mother of a child that isn't hers.

While such sudden, complete value shifts are to be expected by young, immature characters such as Clee or the women on “Girls,” they make a narrative seem baseless when experienced repeatedly by an otherwise mild narrator. What’s worse: Many of Cheryl’s observations have an aesthete-like quality -- she humorously notes the looks of things, continuously calling Clee “bull-like” and “vacuous,” but without exhibiting much interior depth herself.

The effect -- intended or not -- is that The First Bad Man reads less like a thoughtfully constructed literary work and more like a diary of clever observations. Which isn’t to say it isn’t worth a read. July lays intimate desires bare, an act that can allow readers to feel more comfortable with their own strange inclinations.

What other reviewers think:
The New York Times: "The novel starts off tentatively, veers into derivative and willfully sensational theater-of-the-absurd drama -- part Pinter, part Genet -- and then mutates, miraculously, into an immensely moving portrait of motherhood and what it means to take care of a child."

Slate: "It incorporates a boldly feminist recasting of familiar tropes and genres, without worrying itself over empowerment at the expense of emotional honesty."

Who wrote it?
Miranda July is a writer, artist and filmmaker. She's the author of the short story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You, and the writer and director of "The Future" and "Me and You and Everyone We Know."

Who will read it?
Fans of quirky humor not unlike Lena Dunham's "Girls."

Opening lines:
"I drove to the doctor's office as if I was starring in a movie Phillip was watching -- windows down, hair blowing, just one hand on the wheel. When I stopped at red lights, I kept my eyes mysteriously forward."

Notable passage:
"At the Ethiopian restaurant I requested a fork. They explained that I had to use my hands, so I asked for it to go, got a fork at Starbucks, and sat in my car. But my throat wouldn't accept even this very soft meal. I put it on the curb for a homeless person. An Ethiopian homeless person would be especially delighted. What a heartbreaking thought, encountering your native food in this way."