-Desire dictating plot structure
“Every character should want something,” Kurt Vonnegut said, “even if it is only a glass of water.” In The First Bad Man, what Cheryl Glickman, Miranda July’s middle-aged protagonist, wants is a baby. Not just any baby mind you, but:
… one of the babies I think of as mine. Not mine biologically, just . . . familiar. I call those ones Kubelko Bondy.
Cheryl first encounters one of these familiars as a child, in the form of her parents’ friends’ baby. She meets this entity in different babies throughout her life, recognizing him by the internal dialogue they exchange, and she promises him that one day she will get to keep him.
What seems at first to be simply a quirky character trait turns out to be what’s dictating the entire plot.
The book opens with Cheryl going to a “chromotherapist’s” office, recommended to her by Phillip, a board member of the company she works for (which deals in self-defense aerobic-exercise videos) on whom she has a crush, being of the persuasion that they have been married in many past lives. Cheryl needs to treat her “globus hystericus,” a painful knot in her throat that keeps her from swallowing and seems to increase with stress, heightened when her bosses encroach upon her to take in their twenty-year-old daughter, Clee, who is beautiful but entitled, sneeringly rude, and smelly from poor hygiene.
While Clee initially treats Cheryl like garbage and upends her “system” of hardly using or doing anything so she won’t have to clean up after herself, Clee eventually provides Cheryl a therapeutic release via pitched physical battles that simulate the self-defense videos Clee’s parents’ company used to produce. Cheryl’s globus begins to dissolve, despite Phillip’s having declared his love for a sixteen-year-old and left the decision about whether he should actually consummate the relationship to Cheryl. After describing in some detail all the sexual things short of penetration he’s done to this girl, Phillip eventually sends Cheryl a picture of her, who “was even less attractive than I had been at the same age.” Seeing this, Cheryl gives him the go-ahead to consummate. As soon as she does, a strange transformation takes place in which Cheryl feels herself becoming Phillip, and she begins lusting after Clee. The logic seems to be that she’s doing this out of her love for Phillip:
This was the kind of young woman he deserved—a bombshell, not a rat-faced little girl.
Eventually Clee, who’s been portrayed as fairly promiscuous up to this point, turns up pregnant. She plans to give the baby up for adoption, but then he almost dies from aspirating meconium (excrement) during the birth. Cheryl does such a good job of taking care of her that Clee, for the time being, falls in love with her, and decides to keep the baby, whom Cheryl has a realization about while he’s in NICU:
When I opened my eyes, he was looking right at me. He blinked, slowly, tiredly.
I smoothed my hospital gown and tucked my hair behind my ears.
I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t know it was you until now, I said. He gave me the same warm look of recognition that he’d been giving me since I was nine—but exhausted, like a warrior who has risked everything to get home, half-dead on the doorstep.
Eventually Cheryl and Clee consummate their relationship sexually, and eventually Cheryl realizes Clee’s love was a product of intense circumstance and forces her to move out. Clee, however, is terrified of the responsibility of taking care of a baby on her own, and makes Cheryl the legal guardian before leaving them both. Cheryl goes back to the chromotherapist’s office, where she’s left a card on which Clee’s written the name of the baby’s father. In the waiting room at the office, she recognizes the young girl she told Phillip to sleep with. The girl says she’s surprised Cheryl gave him the go-ahead, and Cheryl apologizes, explaining she didn’t think the girl was real. The girl then tells her she’s the one who told Phillip about this doctor (who then in turn told Cheryl about it, prompting her visit that opens the book), and gets Cheryl, who is holding the baby, to take a picture with her she then sends to Phillip to freak him out.
Cheryl manages to retrieve the card with the father’s name. It turns out to be Phillip, who met Clee in the same chromotherapist’s waiting room when Cheryl sent her there to see if anything might be done about Clee’s smelly feet. Nothing was done, but learning from Phillip that this is how he met Clee, she thinks about the baby:
I didn’t make him, but I did each thing right so he would be made.
That’s how much I wanted you.
At this point we realize the entire plot has been driving Cheryl toward rightfully procuring her Kubelko Bondy. The struggle she has gone through is mainly embodied through the stages of her interactions with Clee:
I’d been her enemy, then her mother, then her girlfriend. That was three lifetimes right there.
Cheryl’s struggle to become a mother, often relayed in cartoonist absurdist tones, like the fact that she’s seeing a “chromotherapist,” becomes a surprisingly moving stand-in for the emotional struggle of motherhood itself—that is, of the reward that can come only with struggle.
Image: “Motherhood” by Kazimir Malevich