What Am I Reading This Week?
The First Bad Man by Miranda July
The First Bad Man was bought for me by my boyfriend because he had heard that it was a must read for feminists (which is all of us right? I mean it is 2016). I was really excited to get stuck in and it hasn’t disappointed me in the slightest. It’s been years since I read a book this quickly, and I’ve really struggled to put it down, especially the further into it I get. It touches on so many things, such as mental health, sexuality, aging, the workplace… I think you would struggle to read this book and not find a single theme that you could identify with.
It starts ordinarily enough, about a business woman in her 40s (Cheryl) who lives alone, and suffers from Globus Hystericus (which is the sensation of a lump in your throat as a result of anxiety). She has peculiar habits which I loved getting to know…
“I call it my system…Stop moving things around. Before you move something far from where it lives, remember you’re eventually going to have to carry it back to it’s place- is it really worth it? Can’t you read the book standing right next to the shelf…? or better yet: don’t read it.”
We start in her doctor’s appointment and promptly move on to her workplace where she is desperately in love with a colleague in his 60s, and has a money driven couple as her bosses. These bosses have a daughter, and Cheryl very quickly finds herself with her as an unwanted and destructive house guest who ruins her little solitary nest. The opening seems quite rom-com-esque, focusing on her love for her collegue (Phillip) and her difficulties with her guest (Clee), but it doesn’t take long before the plot suddenly becomes something quite extraordinary.
If you read reviews of this book on Amazon or goodreads, you’ll get a mixed bag, but they all essentially say the same thing. Either the review says
“This is such a bad book, the plot is so weird”
“This is the mostly beautifully weird and amazing book.”
The plot takes a lot of twists and turns, and sometimes you may have to read a couple of sentences twice to figure out if something is happening in real life or just in Cheryl’s head. I think it’s probably worth knowing that before you start. A tip before you read this book is that you just have to go with the flow. It’s told from the point of view of a character who is in and out of therapy throughout, and so if you look at it like that, the plot actually makes complete sense. If you read this expecting a nice beginning middle and end narrative that flows prettily, you will probably end up disappointed. However that is precisely what I loved about it, because it mirrors the mentality of the main character.
I struggled to see what it was about the book that made it a good “feminist” read, but on reflection there are a couple of things that I think makes it stand out from lots of other books. The first is that the main character is in her 40s, so not a tiny 20 something Zooey Deschanel type ingenue that I have come to expect from books with a female main character, so that’s good representation. The second is that July explicitly writes about female masturbation in the novel, a topic that is so taboo in mainstream literature that I felt the need to preface “masturbation” with the word “female,” so that everyone would know I wasn’t talking about a man. The more topics like this are normalised, the fewer steps we will have to take to achieve a truly equal society.
Sometimes there are things I hate about books, but here “Loathed” seems a bit strong. Maybe just “unsure of.”
Without spoiling anything about the plot, there is an epilogue at the end (think Harry Potter style) which is extremely ambiguous. I don’t mind ambiguity particularly and I actually like it when not everything is fed to me in a novel. However, I think I’ve read the epilogue a good ten times now and I still haven’t quite decided what to make of it. It felt very abrupt. Maybe I need to read the whole novel again from beginning to end.
Normally if I love something as much as I loved this I say to myself that I would recommend it to anyone. I won’t say that in this case because I don’t think I would. I think you probably have to be in the right frame of mind. If you’re looking for a mills and boon to read in the sun then this isn’t it, but if you’re looking for something with a thought provoking story and that’s a little bit of a challenge at times, then you really don’t need to look further than this. I’ll certainly be on the lookout for Miranda July’s books in the future, because once you’ve digested this, it makes you very excited to start reading what else she has to offer!