For all the different masks she wears—director, screenwriter, actor, artist, short-story writer, and, with the publication this month of The First Bad Man (Scribner), novelist—there are really only two Miranda Julys, and they don’t seem to get along with each other. In her first film, Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), the theme of over-sexed children, milked for the sake of humor and not always unsuccessfully, is buffered by moments such as a character, played by July, grieving over the death of a stranger’s goldfish. In The Future (2011), her most recent film, a grim affair erupts out of a subplot about the adoption of a sickly cat named Paw-Paw, who also narrates the film. These two halves—the disturbed and the banal—more or less fuse together, with minimal accomplishment, in The First Bad Man, which, if nothing else, is perhaps the most sexually frustrated American novel since Portnoy’s Complaint.
The book is narrated by Cheryl, a fundraiser for an L.A. nonprofit called Open Palm, which teaches women self-defense, though Cheryl herself is defenseless. She is a hypochondriac—the opening scene has her visiting a chromotherapist to treat her “globus hystericus,” very likely a perpetual prelachrymal lump caused by the endless misery of her life.
Cheryl has placed all her hope in the fantasy of one of Open Palm’s board members, Phillip, a man she hardly knows, who is engaged in a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old named Kirsten, though he decides to make Cheryl into his conscience, endlessly asking her advice about the affair via text message. (“KIRSTEN WANTS YOUR PERMISSION TO DO ORAL. ???! NO PRESSURE. STANDING BY UNTIL YOUR GO-AHEAD.”) She has settled nicely into her loneliness, until her married bosses force on her their 21-year-old daughter, Clee, who needs a place to stay in L.A. and is “an extremely gifted actress,” according to her parents.
Clee is cartoonishly awful, both physically and emotionally abusive (“I was laughing because…you’re so sad,” she tells Cheryl at one point), though her presence turns out to be therapeutic, to such an extent that Cheryl starts seeing an actual therapist. In one of the book’s stronger sections, the talking cure combines with an altogether different form of self-analysis, when the two roommates begin a series of choreographed fights, based on old Open Palm instructional videos. Cheryl describes: “‘Gang Defense’ was the most confusing because there were two bad men and another man in all denim who didn’t want trouble. ‘Hey,’ he said to the others. ‘This isn’t cool. Let’s scram.’” As July has so often hinted in her past work, life is a role a person plays, and happiness is just one in a series of contrived performances. The lump in Cheryl’s throat evaporates.
Eventually Cheryl’s affection for both Phillip and Clee becomes entangled, and she begins a series of filthy masturbation fantasies involving the two. (“This was the kind of young woman he deserved,” she concludes.) In an unnecessary digression only July would have created, the fantasies become so intense that Cheryl cannot control them, though she is eventually able to stymie their arrival by singing the first verse of David Bowie’s “Kooks.”
Such a gag might have worked in the disjointed formal experiments of July’s video works, for instance, the excellent Nest of Tens, structured around a series of bizarre tangents: a boy cleaning a crying baby with cotton balls and occasionally recording a series of ones and zeros on a piece of paper; a businesswoman—played by July—chastising an employee on an airport pay phone before having an uncomfortably hostile encounter with a little girl; a man giving a droning speech about his phobias at what appears to be a press conference. None of these images connect in the end, but freed from the burden of linear narrative that is present in her feature films and written works, the video balances the surreal with the dull until both resemble each other, building a sinister tension with no release. In the novel, the “Kooks” detour feels shoehorned in as a reminder that Miranda July has a reputation for being a little kooky.
Clee’s final gift to Cheryl is to get knocked up, offering the potential for a permanent cure to Cheryl’s loneliness, even after Clee’s inevitable departure. The two women begin a thorny romance—with no physical violence, but still doomed from the outset. Finally, there’s a big reveal of the child’s patrimony that can be seen from a million miles away, though July keeps Cheryl’s future with the baby tragically ambiguous.
I appreciate that July has raised the stakes of her craft—the plight of rearing a child taps into a literary tradition going back to Homer and is far better at fostering empathy than, say, the premature death of a goldfish. The problem with the novel, and with July’s writing more generally, is that her characters amount to little more than collections of bodily functions, with adjective-laced limbs and accessories standing in for the actual work of characterization. A finger is both “casual” and “fun-loving.” Glasses are “judgmental.” Ears are “darling little shells.” In the following description of Clee, it’s hard to tell whether July is writing about a person or a public restroom: “A smell began to coagulate around Clee, a brothy, intimate musk that she seemed unaware of, or unconcerned by . . . The body odor was on top of her pungent foot fungus, which hit two seconds after she passed by—it had sneaky delay.”
I get it, Clee is repellent, and conflicting: physically attractive, but only on the surface, an antagonist who still improves the trajectory of Cheryl’s story. But that July relies on physiology alone to paint this portrait renders Clee into little more than a newborn, a body emitting smells and fluids with an undeveloped personality. Compare Clee to this account of her baby: “Besides pooping and eating and sleeping, he hiccoughed and made sticky pterodactyl sounds, he yawned and experimentally pushed his clumsy tongue through the small O of his lips.”
Of course, this is the point—Cheryl mistakes Clee for a romantic equal when she is really only a preparation for Cheryl’s motherhood—but it is also bad writing. I can read around a generally weak command of metaphor, but the problems with the novel are more elemental. July made the dubious creative decision to write about a group of people who seem as if they’ve only ever read about other people and never encountered any firsthand. I could say the same thing about the characters in July’s feature films, who almost invariably work as superficial props, characters who say things like, “You act like I’m this regular man, like a man in a book that the woman in the book meets,” ultimately eclipsing whatever formal strengths she may have. However admirable her chameleonic nature is, I still don’t know if July is an elastic genius or a hack dilettante, but her fantastical grandstanding does nothing to help settle the dispute.
M.H. Miller is senior editor at ARTnews.
A version of this story originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 22 under the title “The Anatomy Lesson.”