Review: ‘First Bad Man’ is Miranda July’s debut novel

“The First Bad Man” (Scribner), by Miranda July

The first sentence of Miranda July’s debut novel, “The First Bad Man,” suggests the almost surreal self-absorption of its problematic narrator: “I drove to the doctor’s office as if I was starring in a movie Phillip was watching.”

Cheryl — 43, single and childless — has a crush on Phillip, a rich, aging hippie who sits on the board of the Los Angeles nonprofit where she works and lusts after a 16-year-old girl. She’s on her way to the doctor — actually, a New Age practitioner of color therapy — because she suffers from globus hystericus, the anxiety-induced feeling of a lump in her throat that makes it hard to swallow. She has other problems as well: She secretly communes with babies — even fetuses — and believes that she and Phil were lovers in past lives.

Over the course of this uneven novel, Cheryl will become reasonably normal and happy but only after she has endured a number of symbolically charged ordeals. She’ll perform martial arts-style sparring that will leave her battered and bruised but feeling unaccountably empowered. She’ll imagine strenuous sex with other women as if she were a man. And she’ll become a surrogate mother and more to Clee, the 20-year-old daughter of her bosses who is blond, buxom, beautiful — and a horrific bully.

Clee’s parents made a fortune repackaging self-defense classes for women into up-tempo fitness DVDs, then moved to bucolic Ojai, California, to start a family. Now they’re estranged from their child. “Everyone thinks it’s such a terrific idea to move out of the city to raise your kids,” Clee’s mom laments. “Well, don’t be surprised when that kid is pro-life and anti-gun control.”

The novel works best when July is satirizing the entitled do-gooders in Cheryl’s privileged circle, and she deftly captures Cheryl’s ambivalence about millennials like Clee, who wears tight, low-slung sweatpants, “an accumulation of straps on her shoulders” (a bra and tank tops) and feels OK about being zaftig. “Whereas girls in my youth felt angry but directed it inward and cut themselves and became depressed,” Cheryl thinks, “girls nowadays just went ‘arrrgh’ and pushed someone into a wall.”

But too much of the action, especially in the first half, comes off as metaphorical, giving the novel an anemic, otherworldly feel. July’s storytelling skills crackle to life in the second half, however, with a riveting childbirth scenario fairly teeming with blood, breast milk and guts.