Miranda July’s work has always provoked extreme reactions that range from joy to frustration. As she releases her debut novel, Connor examines the book and the way critics approach the work.
In a Miranda July story titled Roy Spivey, published in The New Yorker in 2007, a woman finds herself seated next to a Hollywood heartthrob on a plane.
By the end of the flight, the man has given her his phone number, minus the final digit, which he asks her to memorise: four. For many years thereafter, the number – “not the telephone number, just the four” – becomes the woman’s talisman, whispered to soften moments of great pain and anxiety.
When, much older, she finds the slip of paper containing all the digits, she finally dials them, only to find the number is no longer in service.
Roy Spivey is not an especially long story – just shy of 3000 words – but it contains within it the essence of Miranda July’s work as a writer/filmmaker/app creator/performance artist, in particular her concern with how timidity and a lack of action can hurl individuals into bizarre circumstances, of varying degrees of unpleasantness. In Roy Spivey, the protagonist is initially rewarded for being a pushover, before spending the rest of the story – and her life – failing to capitalise on the unique opportunity inexplicably presented to her.
I mention Roy Spivey largely because it functions as something of an acid test, your response to that work determining whether The First Bad Man, July’s debut novel, will captivate or frustrate. The First Bad Man is, in some ways, merely an extension of all of July’s shorter work, and is not an especially surprising novel for those familiar with July’s oeuvre: the new work’s protagonist, Cheryl Glickman, is nearly identical in manner to the woman sat on the plane in ‘Rov Spivey’, or even to Christine in July’s 2005 feature-length Me and You and Everyone We Know, but she is also the deepest and most satisfying refinement of July’s ‘shrinking violet’ archetype that she has ever attempted.
The First Bad Man is, as most critics have noted, July’s longest work to date, though at a relatively slim 276 pages, the length of the novel seems like a strange thing to be foregrounding. I suspect this is because, if you find July’s characters dislikeable or fatuous, 276 pages can seem like 276 pages too many to spend with them. In a deeply negative Guardian review, Laura Miller argued that The First Bad Man is “strenuously quirky”, with “Eccentricities, as uncountable as the sands of the Sahara, drift[ing] and blow[ing] through this book, piling up in dunes that must be scaled by characters and readers alike”.
That’s the thing about whimsy, though, and that’s the thing about Miranda July: if you believe July is simply crafting contrived situations in order to revel in the strangeness of her constructions, there is very little to take from her work. If, on the other hand, you read July’s stories as studies in the dynamics of submission and reticence, it’s usually the case that what first seems like redundant quirk is really a mask for something much darker. Often, when critics deride Miranda July as an unserious writer, my guess is that they are afraid of identifying with her characters and their particular peculiarities – it is easier to see July’s characters as impossible constructions, after all, than to accept that we might be like any of them.
In The First Bad Man, for example, there are large tracts of the narrative that revolve around Cheryl engaging in semi-consensual, sexualised abuse with a young housemate (who, by dint of Cheryl’s chronic unassertiveness, she is unable to evict), or dreaming of encountering ‘Kubelko Bondy’, a magic child whose spirit appears to move between bodies, or seeking assistance from two therapists engaged in an “immensely satisfying” sadomasochistic game throughout the entirety of the text. If the core structuring principle of these strange incidents isn’t identified by the reader, it can seem like a whole lot of pointless whimsy, but it’s interesting how The First Bad Man is packaged – a stark, black book decorated only by the title of the work in large white letters. July is a serious writer and always has been, her work cloaked in the signifiers of twee affectation only to throw off those who aren’t paying proper attention.