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book review

Miranda July’s debut novel, The First Bad Man, focuses on a woman living a lonely, mundane existence.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

A few months ago, I received a necklace in the mail. Since I work at a newspaper, and spent a long stint working in the Style section, this was not particularly unusual; companies send us stuff all the time in hopes that we'll write about it. But this was different. This necklace came with no note, and there was no publicist's business card attached. It was in a white velvet box in a plain white paper bag with my name printed on the front.

After it arrived, the first person I thought of was Miranda July. It's not that I suspected that July – a filmmaker, actor, performance artist and newly minted novelist – sent me the necklace, just that I figured that she's just the type of person who would appreciate this specific sort of modern mystery.

Timed to the release of her first novel, The First Bad Man, much has recently been made of July's particular brand of quirkiness. Like clockwork, this happens every time she has a new project, be it a film (2011's dystopian-ish The Future was the most recent), or an app (July last year collaborated with fashion label Miu Miu on Somebody, an app that sends strangers to deliver messages in person).

My colleague Alexandra Molotkow recently described the artist's mesmerizing pull by arguing that "many who love Miranda July hated her until someone challenged them," adding that July the writer "describes feelings as plainly as objects."

The latter is absolutely true for The First Bad Man, the story of Cheryl, a grey-haired, emotionally wobbly woman looking for something beyond the mundanity of her everyday life.

Despite her muted, clearly lonely existence – she works at a women's self-defence non-profit, where she is mostly overlooked, and lives by herself – calling Cheryl despondent isn't accurate. Determined seems a more appropriate word. Witness the page-long description early in the book of what she dubs her "system," but is really only a series of excuses she has fixated on to keep her life ordered, antiseptic and solitary. "Can't you read a book standing right next to the shelf with your finger holding the spot you'll put it back into?" she marvels. "Or better yet: Don't even read it."

Where Cheryl becomes a captivating heroine is in her rich, erratic inner life, which, throughout the novel's first half, threatens to careen out of control, thanks in large part to her obsession with Phillip, a board member at the non-profit where she works. It's clear Cheryl desires a relationship with Phillip, and in true modern-woman fashion, she fixates on each of his text messages, longing for him both emotionally and physically.

This passionate transmission gets interrupted with the arrival of a new roommate: Clee, the 20-year-old daughter of Cheryl's hapless, selfish co-workers, Suzanne and Carl. A problem child in every sense of the word, the girl gets foisted on Cheryl largely because she's unable (or unwilling?) to say no. A battle of wits ensues at first, followed by actual physical battles, as the two roommates engage in aggressive self-defense role-play that stirs up thoughts and feelings in Cheryl that go worlds beyond her fantasies about coupling with Phillip.

Cheryl's fixation with bodily musks and fluids – an extended masturbation sequence in the middle of the book is highly uncomfortable, until July punctures it with such absurd scenarios that one can't help but laugh – recalls Charlotte Roche's unapologetically filthy 2008 novel Wetlands, with its startling snapshots and summaries of things and scenarios that aren't spoken of aloud, much less described in such detail, and certainly not by nice girls.

Clee is not a nice girl, but a girl she is, which is at least part of Cheryl's attraction toward her. When the young, voluptuous blonde first invades the older woman's space, she quickly establishes herself as the alpha female, rejecting the cot in the spare room and setting up camp in the living room, buying her own (frozen) meals and even ordering cable. Cheryl responds to these acts of defiance with secret, hilarious acts of frustration. "Clee was 20," she thinks at one point. "Nothing she did meant anything." This, like everything else, is true until it's not. The dynamic between the two women gradually changes, resulting in an explosion of what ends up looking a whole lot like lust, landing Cheryl back in therapy to deal with the rush of newly realized, deeply unfamiliar emotions.

At one point Cheryl's therapist tells her, in what I have to assume is the omniscient voice of July herself, that "our lives are filled with childish pranks. Don't run from your playing, just notice it."

So, something like, if a nameless somebody sends you a necklace, enjoy it, wear it, even, but try to remember that things like that don't happen every day. Or that they do.

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