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Miranda July's first full-length a treatise on love and intimacy

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/1/2015 (2106 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It's hard to get away from the term "quirky" when it comes to Miranda July -- she once wrote a story about a woman who cheerfully gives swimming lessons on her kitchen floor.

She's extremely talented, and her new book is a good read, but one has to be in the mood for her writing: always playful and endearing, often melancholy, and consistently with a self-aware, stylized air.

Miranda July


Miranda July

Known for her short-story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You and the movies The Future and Me And You And Everyone We Know (both of which she wrote, directed and starred in), she has stark lovers and haters. Even New York magazine calls her "a polarizing force."

The First Bad Man revolves around Cheryl Glickman, a middle-aged single woman in Los Angeles with a meticulously tidy home. She works at a women's self-defence non-profit agency, where she is in love with an older board member named Phillip, whose only interest in her is for relationship advice regarding his 16-year-old girlfriend.

Enter Clee, the self-centred and mean young-adult daughter of Cheryl's boss couple, who unceremoniously force Cheryl to board their offspring indefinitely. Clee goes along, collapsing Cheryl's carefully built home life in predictable Odd Couple-moments, hosting parties and dirtying dishes and smelling terrible while Cheryl holds out hope for the lecherous Phillip.

Between Cheryl's work and therapists, the book also features a cast of New Age-y creative-class types. An attempted "rebirth" -- as in, a simulation of actually re-living one's birth -- yields one of the book's funnier moments.

Yet while the first half of the novel is fun in its quirk, it also meanders. Even when Clee and Cheryl reportedly gain some intimacy by (seriously) roleplay-acting self-defence videos from Cheryl's work, there are few deeper moments. A reader in search of the beautiful and strangely heart-rending material found in the finer moments of No One Belongs Here More Than You might be inclined to put it down.

Resist the temptation. The plot eventually flowers into a uniquely moving, ephemeral portrait of the kind of romantic love that can be born from crisis -- as well as its ebbing disconnection. Cheryl's pain and dreams begin to live on the page, and Clee too becomes three-dimensional in slow reveals that are startlingly original. The ending is quietly gorgeous.

The First Bad Man starts out as a wacky-hijinks show, but becomes a book about many things: motherhood, commitment, kindness, the dissolution of love and the organic road a relationship can take (or not) into becoming family. It's beautiful.

July's writing is artisanal and spare, and the book reads fast and with flow. Her short-story sensibility comes through in a pleasing way.

Of note is that the standout story of her previous book, Something That Needs Nothing, shares something with The First Bad Man that most of her writing doesn't feature -- love between two women. July seems to reach something with girl-girl sexuality that is absent from her heterosexual couples.

The First Bad Man is the first novel written by July, whose rainbow of an artistic resumé also includes performance art, the non-fiction collection It Chooses You and a variety of short films.

Some readers will be turned off by her writing voice, but she is undeniably talented in her crafting of prose. Fans of George Saunders and Etgar Keret especially should line up for this one.

July has given her fans the novel they have long been waiting for, and one hopes her next book will be even better.


Casey Plett is a Winnipeg bookseller and the author of the short-story collection A Safe Girl To Love.


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Updated on Saturday, January 17, 2015 at 8:13 AM CST: Formatting.

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