Miranda July is one of those personalities – as film-maker, installation artist and writer – people love to hate for her (some say deliberate) kookiness and quirkiness. I really didn’t expect to like this, her first novel, but I did. Yes, the plotting is a bit clunky, there are some jokes that go on far too long and some that really just don’t work, like the extended section dealing with the sadomasochistic affair between her main character, Cheryl’s, two therapists, but July is genuinely funny in her observation of the way people mentally straighten the world out for themselves. Here are two unwilling grandparents paying their first visit to their unwed daughter’s baby:
“Jack seems like an interesting person and we hope we get the chance to know him. But we’d like that to be on his own terms.”
Suzanne jumped in. “Do we share common interests and values? Is he curious about the kinds of things we care about?”
“I think he might be,” I ventured, “when he’s a little older.”
“Exactly. Till then it’s a forced relationship.” (250)
Plain, fortyish Cheryl, besotted with Phil, a man more interested in teenagers, could well be just one more of those annoyingly klutzy heroines for whom nothing goes right, but July makes much more of her. When loud, dirty, loutish Clee, the teenage daughter of her employers, is foisted on her for an apparently endless visit and wreaks havoc in Cheryl’s obsessively-ordered flat, the battle of wills takes a freakish turn. I’m trying not to give anything away here, because I found this development one of the most original aspects of the book. It’s enough to say that it does a lot for both of them.
I’d been mugged every single day of my life and this was the first day I wasn’t mugged, says Cheryl. (81)
And when I say Cheryl has had a baby-fixation all her life and a baby finally comes into her life, you’re going to think it’ll be sentimental. It isn’t. Told she should talk freely to the baby, Cheryl does her best:
I cleared my throat. “I love you.” His head shook with surprise. My voice was low and formal; I sounded like a wooden father from the 1800’s. I continued, “You are a sweet potato.” This sounded literal, as if I was letting him know he was a root vegetable, a tuber. “You’re a baby,” I added, just in case there was any confusion on that last point. He craned his neck, trying to see who was here. (245)
I tired of the rather obvious humour surrounding Cheryl’s relationship with the repulsive and ridiculous Phil, but I never tired of moments like this, moments of close physical observation and fidelity to the often strangled relationship we have to our own emotions.
This is a book that will divide readers. You may well hate it. You may find it just plain tiresome. Or you may find, as I did, that alongside its crowd-pleasing slapstick it has many moments that are graceful, emotionally tactful and highly original.
The First Bad Man, Miranda July (Canongate 2015)