Monday, January 11, 2016

The First Bad Man by Miranda July

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. Who is she? people might have been wondering. Who is that middle-aged woman in the blue Honda? 

I read this book in less than a day, stopping only to sleep. From the opening lines above to the very satisfying end, I was hooked. My love for Miranda July is immense and all encompassing although I realize that her work is definitely not for everyone. She knows the inside of my brain in a way that scares and electrifies me, and I see myself in her characters across her films, short stories, and now in her novel. If you are the kind of person who, like the narrator Cheryl, imagines yourself starring in a movie and analyzing how someone else would watch that movie, then I would definitely recommend this book. The only caveat I have is that it's filled with vulgar language and a lot of sex stuff, so it's not for everyone. The cast is small and the premise is simple. Cheryl, a lonely socially awkward middle-aged woman, has her life turned upside down when Clee, a bombshell blonde girl in her 20s, moves in. The only other characters are Cheryl's crush, Phillip, her therapist, her homeless gardener, and a handful of coworkers. 

I love July's pick for a protagonist. We rarely see women over the age of 40 in the media, so even if it wasn't a choice she made in an attempt to make a statement, a statement is being made. Cheryl is a manager of a "non-profit" that does self defense for women (they still do classes to keep their non-profit status, but most of their business is now selling upbeat fitness DVDs with pop soundtracks). She's the kind of manager who works from home because her office thinks she has a more....hands off style. In fact, she's only allowed in the office once a week; she has to yell a warning before entering at other times. In the opening pages she goes to a color therapist recommended by Phillip (her crush, a board member) just so she can have an excuse to call him and say she did. We have all been there! However, 20 pages later Cheryl describes her system for apartment cleaning
Let's say a person is down in the dumps, or maybe just lazy, and they stop doing the dishes. Soon the dishes are piled sky-high and it seems impossible to even clean a fork. So the person starts eating with dirty forks out of dirty dishes and this makes the person feel like a homeless person. So they stop bathing. Which makes it hard to leave the house. The person begins to throw trash anywhere and pee in cups because they're closer to the bed. We've all been this person, so there is no place for judgement, but the solution is simple: Fewer dishes. 
Maybe we haven't all been there, but there is something delightful about going there with a person like Cheryl. 

Phillip, Cheryl's crush, plays an important role throughout the novel, and July does such a good job of characterizing his skeeziness and also showing how and why women excuse and accept skeezy behavior. For example, he grabs Cheryl by the necklace to pull her towards him or tells her her shirt is unzipped while unzipping it. Cheryl is lonely and her romantic options are Phillip - 22 years her senior - or her homeless gardener, so she chooses Phil to fixate on, excusing his behavior as ironic commentary on the kind of men who would do such things seriously. 

An outsider...might have thought this moment was degrading, but I knew the degradation was just a joke; he was mocking the kind of man who would do something like that....The joke was, Can you believe people? The tacky kinds of things they do? But it had another layer to it, because imitating crass people was kind of liberating - like pretending to be a child or a crazy person.
The final main character is Clee, the daughter of Cheryl's bosses. She is unemployed and needs a place to stay, but her parents won't have her, so she is foisted upon Cheryl. Clee is a perfect foil. While Cheryl has a sturdy name that she tries to force into a nick name (calling herself CherBear when no one would ever call her CherBear), Clee has a name that doesn't even seem like a name. Cheryl has short cropped hair, doesn't shave her legs, refuses to wear uncomfortable shoes, and several characters ask if she's a lesbian. Clee is a blonde bombshell with thongs spilling out of her duffel bag and shiny purple bra straps showing under her tank tops. 
She was much older than she'd been when she was fourteen. She was a woman. So much a woman that for a moment I wasn't sure what I was. 
Clee is dirty, lazy, a mean girl, and a bully. She starts laughing at Cheryl, and Cheryl joins in thinking it's a friendly laugh, which then makes her an easy target of Clee's cruelty. 
Why are you laughing? ...You thought I was laughing about the pan? Like ha ha you're so kooky with your dirty pan and your funny way of doing things? ... I was laughing because you're so sad. Soooo. Saaaad. 
These kinds of moments highlight July's masterful manipulation of the audience. It makes us want to wrap Cheryl up and protect her from the cruel world while at the same time we are thinking what Clee is thinking - Cheryl's pan is dirty and gross and we would be horrified to be staying with someone who never washed the single pan they use to cook in and eat out of. 

Assumptions and judgments play an important throughout the novel, and the different foils and parallels point out the potentially arbitrary distinctions society makes between right and wrong, good and bad, bad and worse, especially when it comes to romantic and sexual relationships. Stronger than the characters and plot is the writing itself. There are so many perfect sentences and sentiments, the book is really a joy to read. 
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. She could die simply from lack of water. It hardly seemed safer than falling in love with a plant.