Book Review: The First Bad Man by Miranda July

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I’ve been excited for this book for quite some time. Miranda July has been a prominent feminist creator who’s body of work is something I’ve been wanting to read for months. Even the cover of this novel is genius- simple and slightly inviting, slightly uninviting. And the title- what could it possibly mean? Admittedly, even after finishing the book, I still don’t entirely know. Perhaps that’s the point.

Cheryl is the protagonist of this novel, a middle-aged feminist who finds herself happily (sort of) alone. Her life is a scheduled routine: work at the meaningful, perhaps culture-changing job (a nonprofit organization devoted to self-defense for women), followed by going to her clean home where she eats small meals and politely leaves when her strange gardener Rick shows up. We find Cheryl in the midst of this comfortable, albeit lonely, life. But, in a way, we respect her for this life because it is something of her own creation, something she has worked to establish and maintain. She’s found a kind of security, and we, like her, long for this once everything begins to change.

‘I felt myself rising up to the challenge of heartache. I pressed my hand against his cheek and held him for what I hoped would be eternity.’

A few things happen to trigger the plot of the novel: Cheryl begins to fall into a hopeless love/lust for Phillip, an older board member of the nonprofit organization. She falsely believes he is falling into the same thing, which perhaps is not her fault. Cheryl is a believer in past lives, and ardently believes that she and Phillip have been together time and time again. When she tells him this via a phone call, he asks ‘What keeps us coming back?’ And she says: ‘What an amazing thing to be asked. Right now, tucked into the warmth of my care with this unanswerable question before me- this might have been my favorite moment of all the lifetimes. We swam in time, silent and together.’ A beautiful sentiment- but one, sadly, that he does not reciprocate. Another important plot dimension is that Cheryl reveals her belief in Kubelko Bondy, a spirit that she’s encountered many times in many infants. Cheryl believes that she is supposed to be the mother of Kubelko Bondy, and feels an intense grief come over her when she meets the spirit in yet another baby that is not hers. Cheryl begins seeing a therapist, Ruth-Anne, who she becomes close to. Phillip reveals that he’s interested in sexually pursuing a sixteen year old girl and wants Cheryl’s permission. And, most life-altering of all, Cheryl gains a new roommate: Clee.

Clee, who is Carl and Suzanne’s daughter (Cheryl’s supervisors), is infuriating. Her disrespect and messiness and grossness combine to immediately make her an unappealing character. For a while, in fact, I felt ready for Cheryl to kick her out and even frustrated when she didn’t. Cheryl seems highly intimidated and even scared of Clee, an emotion that Clee picks up on and uses to her advantage. As Ruth-Anne, Cheryl’s therapist, begins talking to Cheryl about ‘adult games’ and the things adults do to one another, Cheryl and Clee begin playing their own game. The two of them would wrestle in tune to the nonprofit’s self-defense tapes, recreating scenarios and throwing one another to the ground. Oddly, these moments alleviate Cheryl’s intense feelings of anxiety (that she calls her Globus), give her some kind of sexual pleasure, and allow her to temporarily forget Phillip and the obscene requests he is asking of Cheryl. At first Cheryl is disgusted by Clee and by this ‘adult game’ the two of them come to love, but she begins to abandon ideas of right and wrong and messy and neat. ‘I realized that we all think we might be terrible people. But we only reveal this before we ask someone to love us. It is a kind of undressing.’

Cheryl eventually admits to herself that she feels romantically for Clee, and it’s not soon after this revelation that Clee discovers she is pregnant. Cheryl makes the decision to stand by Clee and help her through the pregnancy, especially after Clee’s parents abandon her. Instantly Cheryl feels a connection with the baby: ‘I could see it so clearly, this zygote, filled with the electric memory of being two but now damned with the eternal loneliness of being just one. The sorrow that never goes away.’ At once Cheryl reminds us of the inexplicable and unchangeable human condition of loneliness, while at the same time explaining the unstoppable force of love. Living is one contradiction after the next.

One of the most heartbreaking and nostalgic moments of the novel for me is when Cheryl eavesdrops on Ruth-Anne and Dr. Broyard’s conversation which reveals that the two of them have been having an affair for years. ‘In the very beginning she didn’t even like him. She could see his arrogance and his tendency to ignore what was inconvenient to him. The doctor was surprised, taken aback, when she pointed out these flaws. It made him want to have intercourse with her, just to put her in her place. But he was married and it wasn’t worth it. She wasn’t his physical ideal. The insult kept her interested, this and the fact that he was married. Finally she broke him down. It was sweet, and he actually loved her a little bit. She felt satisfied and at peace. But eventually she wanted it more than he did, and this made her lower than him. ‘Where are you going?’ she sniffed. ‘Let me pay you a normal rate,’ he said, ‘how are you different from a real secretary? It’s been years, Ruth-Anne. Years.’ Ruth-Anne cleared her throat. ‘Okay. Hire another secretary.’ ‘Are you sure?’ Dr. Broyard laughed. She wasn’t at all sure, this was plain as day. She was giving him one last chance to choose her, to stay, stay forever, to honor all her complications and live with her in a new world of love and sexuality. ‘Yeah, I’m sure.’ I could hear the smile she was using. Last chance, it said. Last chance forever. ‘Well, I might not see you before I leave. Let’s have a phone call when I’m back in Amsterdam, okay?’ Maybe she nodded. He walked to the elevator. He pressed the button and we both listened, my therapist and I, and waited for this part to be over- the part where he had already left but was still with us. We listened to the elevator rush upward, the doors opening and shutting, and then a long descent, which got fainter and fainter but never seemed to end. She slid to the floor, sobbing.’

Wow. Like I said, stunningly heart-breaking. July makes a point of exposing these games we make of love, displaying the push and pull nature, the cat and mouse chase, the interest that for one member grows into more interest and for the other diminishes into pity. ‘Adult games.’ Can we ever love one another properly, without any of the bullshit? Or will there always be these games, will there always be these shattering loves of our lives, no matter how deeply we shut ourselves away from the world?

Clee goes into labor at Cheryl’s home, no midwife in sight. It is Cheryl and Rick, an unlikely hero, who deliver Clee’s baby, a boy who is on the verge of death. At the hospital, Cheryl watches the baby in his incubator, struggling to survive and realizes it is him: Kubelko Bondy. Again. Scheduled to go to adoptive parents. Snatched away from his rightful mother, again. Cheryl notes that this is the last time she’ll see Kubelko Bondy, and explains to him what existence means, attempting to convince him to live: ‘See, this is what we do. We exist in time. That’s what living is. Try not to base your decision on this room, it isn’t representative of the whole world. Somewhere the sun is hot on a rubbery leaf, clouds are making shapes and reshaping and reshaping, a spiderweb is broken but still works. Of course, there is no right choice. If you choose death I won’t be mad. I’ve wanted to choose it myself a few times.’ And then, more determined for his survival, ‘You know what? Forget what I just said. You’re already a part of this. You will eat, you will laugh at stupid things, you will stay up all night just to see what it feels like, you will fall painfully in love, you will doubt and regret and yearn and keep a secret. You will get old and decrepit, and you will die, exhausted from all that living. That is when you will get to die. Not now.’

It is here that Cheryl

Her bond with Kubelko Bondy, expanding, always expanding. And her relationship with Clee flourishes in the hospital as well, becomes a full-blown love, possibly, actually definitely, the love of Cheryl’s life. It is in the hospital that the two of them hold hands publicly for the first time, kiss as if they love one another, and plan for afterwards. ‘The room grew dark and we didn’t turn on the light. We would turn on the light when good news came and if it never came we would live in the dark like this forever.’ Eventually, Clee and Cheryl leave the hospital and begin a new life of living together, in love, as partners and parents. They keep the baby and name him Jack. And Cheryl, amazed at the unpredictability of love, asks ‘Was all this real to her? Did she think it was temporary? Or maybe that was the point of love: not to think.’ ‘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.’ Loving Clee is chaos. But it is love, nonetheless.

Cheryl feels a kind of guilt for raising Jack as her own baby, for robbing the adoptive parents of a child, for robbing herself of unknown experiences because of motherhood. But, in perhaps her wisest passage of the novel, Cheryl notes what she has learned of the human experience: ‘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?’ Cheryl has learned the two basic components of a human life, neither of which she really knew at the beginning of the novel: loving and letting go.

After a few months, Cheryl recognizes that Clee has fallen out of love with her. Cheryl does not refuse it or make it into a catastrophe, but instead accepts it as a part of love: ‘We had fallen in love; that was still true. But given the right psychological conditions, a person could fall in love with anyone. What was the lifespan of these improbable loves? An hour. A week. A few months at best. The end was a natural thing, like the seasons, like getting older, fruit turning. That was the saddest part- there was no one to blame and no way to reverse it.’ Cheryl, in a supreme act of bravery and kindness, tells Clee she has to move out. ‘Learn to take care of yourself. Fall in love.’ ‘I am in love,’ Clee responds. ‘That’s nice. That you would say that.’ Cheryl smiles, knowing, offering to take care of Jack while Clee grows up. ‘We slept. I got up and gave Jack a bottle. I came back, slipped into her arms, slept and slept. Morning had gotten lost on the way home. We would lie this way forever, always saying goodbye, never parting.’

Amazingly beautiful, true, and heartbreaking. Perhaps we never truly part from these big loves of our lives. Perhaps a part of us is always sobbing on waiting room floors, always listening to the insistent elevator taking him away, always sleeping next to her. We say goodbye, but we don’t mean it.

Here is when Cheryl also creates a fantasy in her mind, knowing the reality has led to her and Clee separating, Cheryl becoming Jack’s one parent: her waiting on Jack and his new girlfriend or boyfriend at an airport, Clee there too, her eventually running to him, unable to stop. ‘And I won’t be able to stop myself, I’ll start running down the hallway. It’s too much but once I’ve started I can’t stop. And guess what you’ll do? You’ll start running too. We’ll start to laugh. We’ll be laughing and laughing and running and running and running and music will play, bass instruments, a soaring anthem, not a dry eye in the house, the credits will roll. Applause like rain. The end.’ A comforting story to tell herself on the brink of heartbreak, of accepting the loss of her life.

Perhaps the most shocking reveal in the story is who Jack’s father is: Phillip. He comes to see Cheryl, acknowledging that he had sex with Clee and that the timing would make sense for it to be his child, but that he feels no connection with it, so it must not be his. A terrible human being. One who Cheryl cannot help but sleep with, sexually and romantically, but who is so pitiful that she bravely packs his things and asks him to leave, preferring a newfounded alone-ness rather than a half love. A large part of me wishes that July would have kept this fact secret- that Phillip wouldn’t have reentered this story that is so not about him. But Cheryl’s decision to get him out of her life is powerful and shows exactly how much she’s grown. Letting go when it’s time to let go.

The epilogue. Jack, running toward Cheryl, Clee there. ‘They were laughing and laughing and running and running and running and music played, brass instruments, a soaring anthem, not a dry eye in the house, the credits rolled. Applause like rain.’ The book ends with Kubelko Bondy and Cheryl, running towards one another, as they always have been, as they always will be.

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