There’s a scene in Miranda July’s The Future (2011) that I think about a lot: Her character, Sophie, has been sneaking out to have an affair with a man who seems totally not her type. “I have to tell you something,” Sophie confesses to her unsuspecting husband. “One thing is that I’m wild,” she says, sobbing. And it’s this wildness, an unspoken energy bubbling just below the calm surface of all of us that July tackles in her debut novel, The First Bad Man.
When we meet Cheryl, the book’s middle-aged narrator, she’s in love. Unfortunately, her similarly aged crush and fellow co-worker at Open Palm — a nonprofit that produces self-defense videos for women — is wrapped up in an affair with a 16-year-old girl. Crestfallen and ever-the-pushover, Cheryl gets roped into hosting her bosses’ daughter, Clee, a beautiful girl in her 20s with questionable hygiene and a disregard for personal space that offends Cheryl to her core. Like a sex dream you have about someone you can’t stand, Cheryl and Clee’s relationship teeters between disgust and intrigue. The two spar, at first passive-aggressively, then later, physically, in a way that’s violent and erotic (and completely consensual), eventually forming a bond that falls somewhere between romance and codependency.
In her career, July has inhabited many roles — artist, filmmaker, actor, app designer, author, and, very recently, mother. It’s this new, maternal one she explores most deeply in her debut. What starts as a game of off-kilter intimacy between unlikely roommates becomes more complicated when Clee admits she’s pregnant by an unrevealed man and needs Cheryl’s help. Their pseudosexual relationship soon blossoms into a loving, non-traditional family unit, sweetened by the relationship between the kind-of couple and Clee’s newborn son.
As in her movies and previous short stories, July uses The First Bad Man to create a world that’s uncomfortable, but also warm and smile-inducingly surreal. It’s a world where babies communicate with strangers without speaking, where therapists pee into Chinese takeout containers mid-session, where would-be lovers act out self-defense tapes the way they would a porno. I’ve never really thought of Miranda July as precious or “twee.” If anything, she’s always been uniquely herself — a wild card — fixated on her characters’ sometimes-depraved interior lives, superstitions never spoken aloud. In her fiction debut, her sensibility is harder to shake; her characters fuller, stranger, closer to us in ways we’d only be so brave to admit.