Cheryl Glickman is a 40-something year old woman tangled up in loneliness. Phillip Bettelheim, the disgusting pedophile she thinks she loves, is in love with an underage girl whom Cheryl has never met. Clee, the 20 year old daughter of the couple Cheryl works for, has been camped out on Cheryl’s couch for months and is in no rush to find a job or another place to live. It isn’t until Clee and Cheryl start engaging in physical, sexual, and violent roleplay that Cheryl begins to reevaluate herself, her life and who she loves (thank god).
Miranda July’s newest novel, The First Bad Man, takes the reader into a raw and witty world full of rampant sexual fantasies, relationships and strange humor. Initially, Cheryl comes across as a rather pathetic character. Lacking confidence and fearful of confrontation, she might remind you of your weird neighbor whose life seems both mysterious and dull at the same time. Why does she leave for work so early? Why is she always furiously cleaning? Why does she always put her hand on her throat and look distressed? Is she married? Is she single? Is she lonely? Cheryl manages to embody someone familiar who is both unlikeable and relatable, forcing us to give her our sympathies while also cringing every time she moves or opens her mouth.
July’s characters are so complicated, falling somewhere between likeable and detestable, that we as readers cannot help but ask questions. Is Clee happy? Does Phillip know he’s a pedophelic, perverted creep and should be imprisoned immediately and physically beaten? Why does Cheryl have a psychosomatic lump in her throat? Why are Cheryl’s bosses so clueless and stupid?
July manages to pervert her plotline while also complicating banalities to create a storyline wrought with tensions. From Cheryl’s interactions with her therapist, whose privacy and personal life she invades, to the ever-growing animosity between Clee and her parents, July reminds us that what we perceive as predictable rarely ever is.
Perhaps the most engaging relationship throughout the novel is the complicated one we follow between Cheryl and Clee. Clee, an assertive, unkempt, self-proclaimed misogynist physically and emotionally challenges and terrorizes Cheryl on a daily basis. Cheryl’s passivity no longer suffices to combat the constant conflict she encounters in her own home. As Clee attempts to manipulate and intimidate Cheryl, Cheryl’s house, her center for control, is suddenly contorted. Her home becomes less of a haven and closer to a space that forces her to be powerful, domineering, and introspective.
Perhaps the most potent aspect of July’s novel is the emphasis on love and sexuality, most notably in regards to Cheryl. While at the outset of the novel Cheryl comes across as being stuck in a dissatisfying, unfulfilling routine, at the end of the novel she manages to untether herself and direct her own life, no longer waiting to be directed.