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The First Bad Man
By Miranda July
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
Considering I wondered what it was I'd gotten myself into about a hundred pages into this book, it didn't end up that bad. However, considering the rave reviews and glowing blurbs from other authors this book won itself, I can't help but feel let down by it. I'm willing to chalk most of that up to a simple matter of my own taste. Miranda July clearly wanted this to be a quirky novel, and that's exactly what it is. I can definitely appreciate quirky, but throughout the first two thirds of the novel, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that it was demanding to be liked. July offers a main character who puzzles over social interactions, multiple jokes on every page, and all sorts of minor eccentricities ranging from frustrated therapists to a sexual relationship that plays itself out not through sex but a series of simulated fights.
That's before we even get to the narrator, who I had a strange relationship with. Her name is Cheryl, and she's a neurotic woman whose routine is upended when a coworker asks her (Cheryl) to look after her (the coworker's) daughter, Clee. Cheryl narrates in an extremely close-quarters first person voice that gives a constant stream of her internal monologue, which never turns off and never stops thinking bizarre thoughts. This stream of consciousness can be quite funny, or it can be a little too self-consciously offbeat, and often it's the latter, to the point where the novel strains at itself to cram as much charm and quirk into its 276 pages as it possibly can. Sometimes her attempts to stay almost relentlessly upbeat do reveal a lot of sadness, and these moments both strike a chord in me and complicate our narrator nicely, but more often than not, the reader is bombed with eccentricity in a way I didn't enjoy. I'll grant that some readers will like this, and also grant that this was probably what July was going for. It just didn't take to me. I felt a little curmudgeonly for not liking this novel's quirkier aspects, because the book has a friendly feel and it seems like July had a blast writing it, but I'm not going to say I was in love with it. How you feel about the voice will probably determine a lot about how you feel about this novel. Basically, I wasn't feeling the voice.
However, that was just the first two thirds. I enjoyed the last several chapters of this book much more than the first few. I won't say too much about the events themselves for fear of spoiling the plot. Suffice it to say there's a hospital scene, and that the hospital scene hits the funny-sad balance I love in writers like Lorrie Moore. This segment of the book rocks. The development of the relationship between Cheryl and Clee doesn't rock as much, but it's given a little more weight by the hospital scene and the introduction of a new character who, let's again suffice it to say, adds a lot to the dynamic. Still, it takes a while for this one to find its footing. Or maybe it had the footing, but the footing didn't resonate with me until those last few chapters. Either way, I'm not a big fan of this book, but it has several nice moments. Other readers will probably love this, though.
Out of 10: 6.9 from me. If you're into the voice, you'll probably score it in the 8 to 9 range.