Sometimes I find myself so busy that I become disconnected from the real world. A feeling as if I’m living in my own strange little parallel universe. Fuelled by a delirious combination of lack of sleep, caffeine and adrenalin, I float my way through days with little connection to what is happening around me. Did I remember to eat breakfast? What day is it? Why are they laughing? Over the last month I have been working six nights a week, plus day jobs, plus I’ve been lucky enough to have some articles published (this piece on football and feminism for Kill Your Darlings and this response to the release of the 2014 VIDA Count for The Wheeler Centre). Sleep was at a premium and though my physical health for the most part stood up (unlike previous feats of strength, as I wrote about for When The Night Comes), my brain felt like it was slowly melting out of my ears. I set each commitment in my calendar and lived by that schedule, just taking each day at a time, but feeling more and more disorientated and less in touch with the world around me as each day passed.
As I was reading The First Bad Man I realised there were some parallels between the feeling coming from the page and the hallucinogenic force that was getting me out of bed each day and to work on time. Reading this book I found myself often questioning what was really happening against what was the interior monologue of central character Cheryl. But once I embraced the chaos and delirium, rather than being confusing this feeling actually added to the humour of July’s novel and the pace of the narration. I love this line in Margot McGovern’s review of the novel for Lip Mag: “Though often unsettling, [July’s] work emboldens the meek and celebrates the weird.” There has been much talk of July’s style being dismissed as ‘quirky’: first in Eva Wiseman’s essay for The Guardian ‘Why are creative women dismissed as ‘quirky’?’ and Clem Bastow’s follow up for Daily Life ‘The one word used to dismiss creative woman’. While July’s style is certainly unique, this eccentricity ultimately brings her work an intoxicating sense of fearlessness, and her eye towards the maligned brings forth otherwise diminished voices that are rarely otherwise shared.
The First Bad Man is the story of Cheryl Glickman, a single woman in her forties suffering from globus hystericus - a feeling akin to the hard lump in your throat just as you’re about to burst into tears - an illness thought to be psychosomatic. Cheryl has mostly retreated from the world, living alone with her own routines and ticks, until the couple who run the company of which she is the longest standing employee ask her to take in their teenage daughter Clee.
July’s narration, through Cheryl, is one full of humour and eccentricity, yet riddled with a deep sadness and desperation to belong. What brings together these opposing yet very human emotions are Cheryl’s observations of the world around her. There are comments on her own life and routines, such as her strategies for minimising cleaning up after herself, or gorgeous one-liners recognisable in every day life such as “The clothes were all clean but collectively they had an oily, intimate smell that I had never noticed before.” These are balanced against deep-seated yet highly relatable insecurities such as “Me! A woman who was too old to qualify and in fact had never qualified.”
One of the greatest strengths of July’s work is in not only putting forward the voices of the meek, but in doing so highlighting the struggle in which it takes to do so. In her film The Future, July responded to the feeling many women grapple with in their thirties, one of time moving beyond their control. The feeling of being surrounded by external pressures - of settling down, steadying a career, committing to a partner, having children, buying a house - that seem to circle around like a whirlpool building pressure until you either choose to dive in or push back and explode. July comments on this in her Production Notes on the film’s website:
It seemed to me, a woman in her thirties, that time had suddenly become the protagonist of my life; I was stunned by a new awareness of mortality, of life being finite. I suppose this marks the beginning of adulthood. Or, if you are not quite ready for adulthood, it marks the beginning of a problem.
In The First Bad Man, July turns her attention to women in their forties. A decade in which women appear to become invisible. When ringing to make an appointment with a new therapist, Cheryl leaves a phone message that shows an ingrained feeling to need to apologise for being:
“I’m forty-three,” I added, still whispering. “Regular height. Brown hair that is now gray. No children. Thanks, please call back. Thank you.”
Cheryl embodies the myth that women in their forties cease to be sexually active or hold desire. But with the arrival of Clee, a confident, unapologetic young woman, Cheryl is able to reexamine herself through an outside perspective. Through physical and mental role-playing games, Clee forces Cheryl to confront her insecurities and desires, and through therapy, Cheryl discovers the importance of embracing her urge to play:
“Our lives are full of childish pranks, Cheryl. Don’t run from your playing, just notice it: ‘Oh, I see that I want to play like a little girl. Why? Why do I want to be a little girl?’”
I hoped she wouldn’t make me answer this question.
As we watch Cheryl wrestle with the diminished version of herself she has become, The First Bad Man becomes a powerful coming-of-age story. Perhaps considering it concerns an adult it would be more correct to label it as a rebirth or born-again story, but I feel uncomfortable with those terms both within the context of the novel but also given that so much of the chronology of women’s lives is described around fertility. We all become different versions of ourselves as we grow and age: I am certainly more sure of myself in my thirties than I ever have been, yet know I will always struggle for confidence and strength in other areas of my life. Why can’t we become more full versions of our selves as we age, rather than being described as a whole new entity? July also ruminates on this idea, this inherent tying of women to their ability to reproduce, by broadening gendered metaphors:
The couple were vibrating; this was the most incredible moment of their lives. They were about to take their baby into the world, the real world. The baby had lots of wet-looking black hair and was fatter than Jack. When the doors opened, the young father glanced back at me and I gave him a nod to say Yep, your life, here it is, go into it. And they went.
The First Bad Man is a wonderful celebration of women and female relationships. July weaves together two generations with seemingly opposable positions of power (that of late Gen-Y with early Gen-X) to show that women inherently desire to bring strength to each other, rather than the misogynistic and mislaid idea that we fight for attention and power. Whilst the prose style will be jolting at times to those like myself who are not big readers of alt-lit, it also acts as a great introduction to the direct style of writing, yet with a more traditional editing and formatting structure. Yet despite this comparison to the genre, it’s hard to think of another writer who could have written The First Bad Man and done so with it’s balance of rawness and beauty.
At one point during this month of madness I felt myself about to explode. The pressure of waking to my alarm each morning without feeling rested, pushing myself through each day with caffeine and adrenalin, feeling like I was swamped with no end in sight. Knowing I had to do something different for the sake of my mental health, I took one morning off and worked from home. It gave me an extra hour in bed so I woke up less drowsy, it let me take my time over breakfast rather than wolfing it down in order to make a tram, and it meant I could eat lunch at home. In a month in which most of my meals were eaten at a desk or whilst standing in dark corners of a theatre, it felt like a real privilege to eat a warm meal at our kitchen table. Having said that, my ability and desire to cook something from scratch was still minimal. Recently I’ve been trawling back through Emma Galloway’s site My Darling Lemon Thyme and came across this fantastic recipe for fried egg tortillas with cucumber and jalapeños salsa that made for a very quick and easy lunch that was also a wonderful injection of comfort into a long grey Melbourne day. Without having time to run down the street for coriander I substituted a small handful of chopped spring onions and the recipe still worked well. The gooey, runny yolk of a soft fried egg makes a fantastic mess in the way only proper comfort food can. The heat from the jalapeños and chilli sauce is balanced against the cool, calming cucumber and plain corn tortilla, yet each mouthful still packs a kick. This would be the most perfect hangover busting meal you could make for yourself or friends after a big night out, and like any good hangover food, could be eaten equally at breakfast as at dinner. When I needed something to help me pull myself back together, these were the perfect fuel to get me back out into the world, to push through another day of delirium, yet slightly more satiated than before.
It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of Leslie Jamison’s, so I loved reading this published email conversation between her and friend Catherine Lacey on the relationship between narcissism and the ‘self’ in writing. In Leslie Jamison’s case, narrative non-fiction as seen in The Empathy Exams (which I wrote about here), and for Catherine Lacey in her memoir-fiction release Nobody Is Ever Missing. As Lacey says, “writing about the self can be one of the most profoundly difficult subjects. It's like trying to make a bed while you're still in it. There you are, a big lump in the middle.”