By Rob Spillman
A few weeks ago, Miranda July and Lena Dunham took the stage at BAM to discuss July’s first novel, The First Bad Man. They weren’t five minutes into conversation before my social media began exploding with vitriol. Smart, well-read people, many of whom I admire, were slagging Dunham and July as “navel-gazers” and “purveyors of white privilege.” I was surprised at the level of resentment and hostility directed at Dunham and July: two young, white, creatively ambitious, and very successful artists. Though I shouldn’t have been, as this ire is born out of equal parts jealousy and a reflexive dismissal of accomplished young female artists that reads to me like straight up misogyny.
The issue is that words like whimsical are “a pejorative masquerading as a descriptor” and, no surprise, are rarely used to describe the work of male novelists working similar territory.
Reviews of July’s novel repeatedly—lazily—fall back on descriptions like quirky, twee, whimsical, and precious. Even Laura Miller, a critic I greatly admire, wrote a dismissive review in the Guardian, calling the novel “strenuously quirky.” The issue, as Lauren Groff points out in her smart review of The First Bad Man in the New York Times Book Review, is that words like whimsical are “a pejorative masquerading as a descriptor” and, no surprise, are rarely used to describe the work of male novelists working similar territory.
Part of the reason that some find July’s literary success so galling is that she is not simply a novelist; she is “Miranda July” a continuingly evolving conceptual art project, as well as the writer, director, and star of two movies, which have won prizes at Sundance and Cannes. Her videos and performance pieces have been in the Whitney, MoMa, Guggenheim, and Venice Biennale. And, oh yes, her debut story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You won the Frank O’Conner International Short Story Prize, the biggest international prize for short fiction. It’s not irrational that people would be jealous of July.
July seemed to welcome whatever her “audience” wanted to project onto her.
Full disclosure—I published one of July’s stories, and many years ago, before her first book came out, I brought her to the Tin House Summer Workshop in Portland, where she freaked out most everyone—students and faculty alike. She refused to be pigeonholed as any one kind of artist, and her performative persona of complete transparency was hard to read. She seemed to welcome whatever her “audience” wanted to project onto her. Lorrie Moore was there as well, and in the latest New York Review of Books she recounts being on a panel with July, Rick Moody, and Denis Johnson throwing everything off by breaking into song.
The image that July projects in her author photo is of a shell-shocked waif, her hair a frizzed-out halo. It is hard not to think of the characters Kristen Wiig played on SNL, or in Anchorman 2—awkward, passive, grating.
I can see why it is easy to be prejudiced against July and why so many people would judge her novel preemptively. I admit, I approached the book with hesitation, not sure if I could tune out the fact that “Miranda July” was the author. However, only a few pages in I gave myself over to the darkly comic world of Cheryl, a lonely forty-three year-old single woman who works for Open Palm, a women’s self-defense organization in LA that makes money from self-defense exercise videos. Cheryl is so passive and seemingly hapless that she can’t resist when the narcissistic couple who run Open Palm dump their beautiful twenty-year-old daughter Clee on her doorstep, hoping that Cheryl will help their belligerent, slovenly daughter transition into her own apartment and life. The situation, which in another writer’s hands could feel like the start of a cheap sitcom, quickly turns black. In no time Clee takes over the apartment, watching TV non-stop, upending the spare, clean housekeeping rituals, and openly disdaining Cheryl to the point of knocking her around.
As these physical assaults escalate, Cheryl pines for Philip, a much older member of the Open Palms board. Though he feels a connection to Cheryl, Philip is obsessed with a sixteen-year-old girl and repeatedly texts Cheryl asking what he can and cannot do with the willing teen.
Despite being disgusted by Philip’s predatory desires and sexual objectification of the teen girl, Cheryl finds herself looking at Clee as through Philip’s eyes, constructing violent fantasies where waiters, plumbers, and strangers on the street engage in myriad forms of violent, degrading sex with Clee.
In the middle of this genuinely unsettling scenario, July ratchets up the stakes by introducing a baby into Cheryl and Clee’s dysfunctional household. July’s descriptions of the delirium brought on by trying to take care of a newborn are nuanced and shrewd. “His vulnerability slayed me, but was love the right word for that? Or was it just a feverish pity?”
I suspect that this exposed sorrow and rage is what really discomforts July’s detractors.
At its heart, The First Bad Man is about the intricate coping systems damaged people construct in order to operate in a world not built for them. July’s depiction of Cheryl’s evolution from resigned loner to impromptu mother is full of depth and pathos. When Cheryl says, “I felt myself rising to the challenge of heartache,” the line has the ring of authenticity.
The First Bad Man, much like its characters—is not quite right. There are missteps, a few too many convenient coincidences, jokes pushed too far, and a resolution that is too quick and neat. Even so, it is a formidable first novel. Henry David Thoreau wrote that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” July masterfully captures this “confirmed desperation.” There is a disquieting sorrow and rage lurking behind the jury-rigged facades of her alienated, oddball characters. I suspect that this exposed sorrow and rage is what really discomforts July’s detractors.
There is nothing cute or whimsical about the way July exposes the inner lives of these “quirky” loners. When Cheryl begins defending herself against Clee’s physical attacks, she thinks, “I felt my face contorting with a wrath I didn’t recognize; it seemed out of scale for my species. This was the opposite of getting mugged. I’d been mugged every single day of my life and this was the first day I wasn’t mugged.”
Shut out whatever you think you know about “Miranda July” and give Miranda July, novelist, a serious read. She earns it.