Miranda July deals in secrets. Into her work as an actor, director, screenwriter, artist, and author, July has stitched a theme of liberation from shame, dishonesty, and feeling alone. Telling secrets is her currency. Even the titles of her past works vibrate with compassion: No One Belongs Here More Than You (her 2007 short story collection, which won the Frank O’ Connor International Short Story Award), Learning To Love You More (an online community art project published as a book in 2007), and You And Me And Everyone We Know, the 2005 film she wrote, directed, and in which she starred. The title of her debut novel, The First Bad Man, breaks the mold, but its subject matter is wholly on trend.
The First Bad Man, like all of July’s work, is a story of deepest, truest human desire, and how it gets fulfilled. In this case those desires are Cheryl Glickman’s; a middle-aged obsessive-compulsive woman whose life follows a thousand invisible rules. There are the absurd social requirements for employees at the women’s self defense nonprofit she co-founded. There are the strictly organized bins that hold her few belongings. There is the elaborate fantasy life, spanning millennia, that she has constructed around one of her coworkers, Phillip. Cheryl, in her idiosyncratic and unquiet mind, wants what every human wants. To be loved. To be sought after and found. To be needed. To be perfectly, cosmically understood.
In bringing together her characters, July operates neither in realism nor magical realism, but instead in some interstitial cosmos where the familiar and the utterly strange are intrinsically bound. Nothing that happens to Cheryl is magical – in fact, some of what happens in her head and around her is horrifying – but it’s bizarre enough to seem almost mystical. This is one of July’s greatest skills: an authorial honesty and empathy so pure it makes doubting any event, or the humanity of any character, no matter how repulsive, feel impossible. Cheryl is obsessed by Phillip, a man with disturbing desires and surprising insight into Cheryl’s psyche. She is haunted by the spirit of a baby she cared for once as a young girl, and has been seeking as a soulmate in many forms ever since. In the midst of these vast internal worlds, she is blindsided by the very real presence of Clee, the crass 20-something daughter of Cheryl’s bosses who arrives on her doorstep with a sleeping bag and nowhere to go. Clee’s visceral contempt for Cheryl both uproots everything Cheryl holds to be true and eventually brings her the greatest fulfillment she’s ever known.
The First Bad Man is a daring book. It takes readers through shocking eroticism, dark humor, and tender portrayals of people who, in the hands of another author, would be repellent. But here is where July is most masterful: when she shines a light into dark places, to show us parts of ourselves we didn’t even know we were hiding.
Copies of The First Bad Man will be on shelves January 13th. You can pre-order a copy now via bookpeople.com.