The First Bad Man Cover

The First Bad Man by Miranda July.

When I woke this morning it was to the most wonderful sense of gratitude for all that is beautiful and good in the world- feeling I had everything I could ever need or want and that the world is a truly beautiful place….and I was not alone, every penguin I met on my daily rambles around the Island seemed happy and content. And these words sprang to mind,

“Look at the sky: that is for you. Look at each person’s face as you pass on the street: those faces are for you. … Remember this when you wake up in the morning and think you have nothing.”

Miranda July

It is impossible to always feel this way, and these words of Miranda July’s perfectly capture the antidote for those times when we feel lost or bereft, devastated and broken….’Look at the sky.’

July’s work has long interested me. I subscribed to ” We Think Alone” a project in which July curated emails taken from ‘celebrities’ -Lena Dunham, Kareem Abdul Jabar,Kirsten Dunst, Rodarte, Shelia Heti among others- on a specific subject( for example: An email you decided not to send. An angry email) collated them and emailed them in the manner of forwarding …see this extract for example…

An email you decided not to send….

———- Forwarded message ———-From: Etgar KeretTo: zSubject: NostalgiaDate: 15:30 6/11/2012

Hey z.,Sitting home and remembering the good times when you still liked me.Etgar

———- Forwarded message ———-From: Lee SmolinSubject: Fwd: Lynn Margulis, 1938-2011 – memorialDate: xxTo: x

Dear xxx,

Could you perhaps add the following response to Y’s attack on Lynn.

Someone told me the other day that the importance of a philosopher can be measured by the number of arrows in their back. Many readers will have long concluded that the same is sometimes the case for evolutionary theorists. I have no wish or need to disagree with Y’s assessment of Margulis’s mistakes, but I am struck that the power of her determined advocacy for her views can perhaps be measured by his need to have the last word at the first moment she became unable to defend her views.



———- Forwarded message ———-From: Kirsten DunstTo: MSent: Sat, May 4, 2013 6:08 pmSubject: Re: hair/makeup options – Glaad Awards

I’ll just uber there, also

———- Forwarded message ———-From: Lena DunhamDate: May 12th, 2013Subject: bookTo: J

Hi J,

I’m a big fan of your work and the book. I am so grateful L sent it to me. It’s a truly meaningful work that young feminists should have the chance to engage with.

But after a few lovely exchanges, L wrote me a series of very upsetting, paranoid and accusatory emails. I was saddened that our interaction became so bitter suddenly and without warning. She questioned my interest in, and understanding of, the book and my relationship to feminism as a whole. I’d love to meet you but I am not comfortable engaging with L in any way. It was just too disorienting and mean. Sorry to write that in an email, but I guess modern times require us too!


———- Forwarded message ———-From: Sheila HetiDate: December 11, 2009Subject: psTo: Margaux Williamson

I *am* feeling pretty sensitive obviously this week.

The other thing is: Sometimes you f

———- Forwarded message ———-From: RodarteDate: Monday, October 17, 2011 3:37 PMSubject: QuestionsTo: L

This is just so crazy to us. We can’t even deal with this question.

———- Forwarded message ———-From: Deborah MoralesSubject: Week 10: an email you decided not to send-Sent on Behalf of Kareem Abdul-JabbarDate: June 24, 2013 11:30:26 PM PDTTo: Miranda July

Hi Miranda,

I don’t save emails that I think better of sending. Once I decide not to send an email, I delete it because I’d rather not have someone dig it up later and think that it expressed my real sentiment. If I decide not to send it then it’s not what I ultimately believe.

P.S.—I almost didn’t send this email. Does that count?

Yours Truly, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

———- Note———-Danh Vo and Catherine Opie were also unable to find an email they decided not to send.

Much more fascinating than we’d like to believe for a project that seems on the surface to be relatively simple. Addictive even. And of course the question’s are endless, why this email? did you alter it in any way before forwarding it to July? what was the response? I think about it still.

So when the review edition of July’s The First Bad Man popped up on my Kindle, I could not have been more excited. And I will say right here, right now that I was not disappointed. Still, as with my review of The Children Act by Ian McEwan I couldn’t readily find a way to express what I felt about the book, why it matters and why it so moved me. I started writing this review last November, saved a draft and there it sat. And increasingly I am discovering this, the longer I ‘give’ a book, the more I sit with it, the further I see. And at the moment I am seeing these works through the lens of my own life, my relationships and friendships, my interactions with the world. But here’s the rub, how to write about all this, express it without betraying those dear and precious friendships? For my life is my own to write about, to mine if you will but the lives of others? It’s an on going problem, and not one I can avoid resolving, or simply no writing will get done.

As a title The First Bad Man implies that in the female narrators life, if not all the female characters lives, there will be more…Bad Men that is. But here’s the rub. The ‘badness’ of the men in this book, is often though not universally no more than monstrous self absorption, and that is interesting to me because all the major characters, and most of the minor ones in this work, male and female suffer from that affliction. Cheryl Glickman around who the book centres appears to suffer from numerous socially isolating disorders, Philip ‘Phil’ Bettelheim -a modern reworking of Humbert Humbert -is  creepy self absorbed, criminal.  Clee,  Cheryl’s unwanted and increasingly violent houseguest, and finally Kulbelko Bondy, Cheryl’s imaginary child. With the exception of Kulbelko Bondy there isn’t a character that isn’t in some way ‘bad.’

July’s characterization is precise and the hint of cliché is the very thing that makes it superb. Cheryl’s life is a monument to control-of her environment, her responses, her emotion, her, often disgusting, obsessions. July conveys the stifling nature of the life Cheryl has crafted for herself so well, it’s airlessness. And it is not until she is forced to relinquish some of that control that things get interesting. Her dreadful  employers dump their almost adult daughter on her, then make her life hell when said daughter won’t return to them. And Phil…”If one young woman, why not another?” He’s so unlikeable because we know, or know of, men like him.In all these increasing horrors Cheryl becomes waftingly complicit. (Is waftingly even a word?Not sure but this is the image I have of her, like cigarette smoke).

Nor does the book lack some wonderful humor, albeit laced with pathos, like cyanide…( this on ‘the female therapist’ Ruth-Anne)

But she couldn’t generate enough sadness and regret to free herself. She lived for the three days a year he replaced her in her office and she worked beneath him. Through sheer force of will she became what he once said he wished his wife was: small, feminine , with a slightly conservative elegance. Being this woman, this receptionist was her one joy. Joy is the wrong word: it fueled the spell and so the spell could continue, which is the only thing a spell wants to do. “

July does not leave us without hope, that just perhaps not all men, all humans are bad- we are left with a male who is not yet a man. A son is born and hope is renewed. All sounds rather familiar, doesn’t it? Well it certainly did in December.

“ No, rainbows are in their own class of spectacularity, every single one of them impressive, never a bleak rainbow, never with just some of the colours. Always all the colours and always in the right order…..”

Look at the sky.

Thea Brooke


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