The main character is Cheryl Glickman, and at the outset of the book she's on her way to a chromotherapist, a doctor that treats what is apparently a purely-mental condition Cheryl has. He treats it using what is likely just plain water, but he tells her it is the essence of distilled red. Cheryl has been referred there by Phillip, who is the love of her lives: Cheryl is in love with Phillip, 20 years older than her, and believes that she and Phillip have been repeatedly reincarnated as lovers for thousands of lifetimes.
It gets weirder from there -- but not 'weird' in a bad way. The entire book is told from Cheryl's point of view, and it's a hilarious and heartbreaking point of view. Cheryl has a 'system' for her life: she thinks it's akin to carpooling. One example of the system: if you have to take soap to the bathroom, wait until you have towels to take, too. Then, when you have to take them all (soap and towels) up, fold the towels while you use the toilet. "Your hands are free," Cheryl notes, pointing out that you can then use any extra time you have to blot oil from your face.
Cheryl works for a company that markets self-defense videos as a form of exercise. She's the manager, somehow, despite being told that her management style is similar to that of an old Japanese man of legend, who protects his village by sititng outside it keeping the fire going -- first by using all the wood, then by burning his own body, then, finally, by burning his dreams, which are so full of energy that they protect the village forever.
Into this quiet, orderly life, comes Clee, the boss' daughter, who is sloppy and sexy and rough and mean. Cheryl only takes Clee in because she was told that she (Cheryl) is 'practically family', and from there the battle, literally, starts: Clee and Cheryl begin fighting, actual physical fights that cause Cheryl bruises until Cheryl hits on the idea of acting out the self-defense scenarios on the videos the coimpany makes.
There's so much more to the book, but to describe it all would basically be retelling the book without half the wit and verve and sadness the author, Miranda July, puts into it. It was one of the most compelling books I've ever read. I've started pointing out more and more when I talk about books that every story has to have a reason for existing as a story, and The First Bad Man is a shining example of that: it is, first and foremost, a story that is somehow both familiar and completely exotic and different. It's a story almost completely unlike any other I've ever read; it feels almost like its own genre.
Beyond that, which is enough for a story to be in the first place, are what feels like layer upon layer of meaning in the story. Without in any way emphasizing it or dwelling on it, The First Bad Man is about the way we create our lives, and the way others create our lives. Everyone in the book has a way they see themselves, and a way the world sees them, and these expectations keep butting into each other and reshaping everyone, over and over, so that the personalities of the characters are in constant motion while also being rooted to a basic concept -- much as we ourselves are. And through it all the book just keeps popping up these memorable gems of ideas and concepts and scenes.
I think the masterstroke of this book is that it manages to be so funny about being so sad. It's not laugh-out-loud funny (although there are lines that made me chuckle.) I once realized that if you take most comedies and turn off the laugh track and happy music, you've got a tragedy -- comedy and tragedy are flip sides of the same coin, often. Think of some hilarious movie you've seen, and consider it without someone telling you when to laugh. Pretty sad, isn't it? One of the funniest movies I ever saw, hands down, was There's Something About Mary -- but taking a step back from it, it's about a desperately lonely bunch of people fixated on someone they believe to be the perfect woman, people whose lives are so empty they will throw them away at a moment's notice just to spend a little time with someone they barely know. That's sad.
The First Bad Man is that sort of comedy: it's made up of many inherently funny scenes, like when the possibly-homeless gardener Rick lets Cheryl know he's seen her fighting Clee and that he is there to help her if she wants, while also talking about how he will need snails for the garden. "I'll get you snails!" Cheryl yells as Rick flees her backyard. "I'll get you a baker's dozen. A hundred snails!" And she does: she ends up getting a box full of snails delivered, and they somehow get out and spread around her house.
But none of these scenes feels perfectly funny -- possibly because of the overlaying sadness so many of the characters seem to have. They're all alone and waiting for someone else to help them decide who to be, so that they can decide if they want to be that person or try again.
The theme of who a person should be -- someone they want to be or someone they are made to be by everyone else -- pervades the book. Cheryl imagines a baby she met when she was six being born repeatedly, trying to become Cheryl's own baby -- so every baby she sees, she scrutinizes to see if she has a special connection with the baby. Cheryl ends up in therapy with the office-share therapist of her chromotherapy doctor, who she first believes is a receptionist. When Clee gets pregnant and has a baby -- one Cheryl believes has the special connection with her -- Clee's parents say they don't really see themselves as grandparents. "Let's not force it," they say, preferring to wait and see if they run into the baby someday when he's grown and they can meet on their own terms, as people who have something in common.
It's funny, and sad, to watch Cheryl and Clee and Phillip try on various personas that other people want, while they mistake everyone around them for somebody else. The theme becomes overt when Clee and Cheryl, acting out one video in particular, get confused as to which person Clee is playing. "Who are you?" Cheryl stage whispers to Clee-- and we get the feeling that she's asking not just for that moment, but for her entire life: what role will Clee play in her life, she's wondering -- and by playing that role, what role will Cheryl be forced into?
We all get forced into roles, by our choices and by other's choices, and we might settle into them comfortably -- the other day I mentioned to Sweetie that I thought I made a pretty good 47-year-old, having been not so great at being a teenager or a person in his twenties -- or we might chafe in those constraints and want to push back, to change roles -- only to find that perhaps we liked our old character after all. The First Bad Man is a must-read, not least because it makes one think about how we place ourselves in the world and what personas we try on -- but mostly because it's a fine story that is worth reading, and thinking about for a long time.