Abjectly Speaking

Morgan Childs on Miranda July’s The First Bad Man


More recently than I’m inclined to admit on the Internet, my father said something to me—female, twentysomething, heterosexual, and very newly single—that felt like salt in a wound. “You call yourself a feminist, but when it comes to romance, you’re like a limp rag,” he told me. “When you get your heart broken, you’re a damsel in distress.”

We should all be so honest as my father was to me that night I called home for help, curled up in the fetal position, wearing a bathrobe crusted with yesterday’s takeout. Not only was I damsel in distress; I was a damsel who’d sidled herself up to the train tracks and offered the mustachioed villain some help with the rope. I had lost a big love, sure, but then I’d lost my grip, whittling myself into the grotesque, wailing woman I was sure my ex-boyfriend believed me to be, sleuthing for signs confirming I was unworthy of the man who had enumerated my every fault the night he called it off—my enthusiasm, my loquacity, my ambitions, my naked body. Sobbing alone in my apartment, I listened to my own moans with remove, identifying morbidly with the beast that had possessed me. Maybe she was dying, maybe she was giving birth. She was definitely female.

There is a home in our culture for the “intimately disappointed,” to borrow the parlance of Lauren Berlant, a sanatorium of self-help books and commercially sanguine women’s magazines. These venues cater to the emotional distress wrought by the “female complaint”: that, as Berlant writes, “women live for love, and love is the gift that keeps on taking.” In the throes of heartbreak, I turned to the outposts of what Berlant calls “women’s culture”—with a Kindle, no one needs to know you’re reading The Girl’s Guide to Surviving a Break-Up—but the books in this genre share a premise to which I in my despair objected: That by virtue of being a woman, I was not only worthy, but wondrous; that emotional intelligence and intuition make all of us (every last one!) unspeakably beautiful, infinitely adorable, preternaturally wise. Ask the girl with dried peanut butter in her unwashed hair, and she’ll tell it to you straight: It isn’t always “his loss.”

Like narrator-Kraus and Cheryl, these are women who fall apart when it isn’t enough to do what they—we—do best. When the virtues of femininity—emotional stewardship, verbal acuity, affective housekeeping—fail to merit the women who possess them the companionship in which to exercise them. When empathy becomes insanity. Like narrator-Kraus, Cheryl exercises the strange power of casting herself out. 

The literature of women robbed blind by love has another “intimate public”—one that is sturdier, smarter, sometimes debased and deranged, often vulgar, always messy. Its matriarch is Chris Kraus, who spun the narrative of romantic disappointment out before our eyes in her fictocritical and, it seems, increasingly popular 1996 book I Love Dick. (Let’s forget, for a moment, that Kraus’s protagonist bears her own name; that the book is so often classified as a memoir is enough to induce a claustrophobic fit. In an interview with The Brooklyn Rail, Kraus called on Deleuze’s aphoristic “Life is not personal” to illustrate how utterly two-dimensional the memoir classification can render a text. Novel at least provides more breathing room; exegesis may describe the book best—“‘Exegesis’: the crazy person’s search for proof that they’re not crazy,” narrator–Kraus writes in the book.) Even more than the loss of love, I Love Dick confronts the aftermath of the loss of its idea—the scrambling pursuit on the part of the loveless of a blank space on which to project unrequited affection. Kraus seizes tight control just at the moment of its loss, power just at the moment she is most powerless—the same act of stealth feminism undertaken by the “anorexic philosopher” Simone Weil as Kraus portrays her in Aliens in Anorexia, performing self-starvation—disappearing—as a seizure of agency. Kraus quotes Weil: “If the ‘I’ is the only thing we truly own, we must destroy it.”

Last year, Miranda July offered a new entry in a canon of female writers working with a toolkit Kraus has made popular: July’s debut novel, The First Bad Man, actualizes in fewer than 300 pages an entire world knocked off its axis by the lovelessness of its narrator. Through the lens of its protagonist, Cheryl Glickman, the universe of The First Bad Man is so airless as to seem vacuum-sealed; until the novel’s latter half, Cheryl’s matter-of-factness is estranging much in the way that Kathy Acker’s Dick-and-Jane prose alienates a reader of the sexually profane Kathy Goes to Haiti. In her early forties and without a partner, without a family, Cheryl’s bizarre character is saturated in her profound lack: In one passage, alone in a bathroom stall, Cheryl confesses with rare insight: “My eyes fell on the gray linoleum floor and I wondered how many other women had sat on this toilet and stared at this floor. Each of them at the center of their own world, all of them yearning for someone to put their love into so they could see their love, see that they had it.”

Cheryl has two consuming loves. The first is for Phillip Bettelheim, her professional superior and a man so utterly out-of-touch that he calls upon Cheryl to give him her blessing to sleep with a sixteen-year-old, but just enough in-touch to manipulate Cheryl’s desire for him. The novel opens with the protagonist on the road, seeing herself through Phillip’s eyes: “I drove to the doctor’s office as if I was starring in a movie Phillip was watching—windows down, hair blowing, just one hand on the wheel.” The girl-on-the-road is an image of female freedom Kraus employs in the latter half of I Love Dick (and one which is smartly upended in David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, in which Amy strips herself of her “cool girl” persona on the drive away from her suffocating marriage). Cheryl’s intense self-awareness often works, unsettlingly, against her. In one such moment, Phil compliments her beaded necklace, then takes hold of it to pull her towards him; an onlooker, says Cheryl, “might have thought this moment was degrading, but I knew the degradation was just a joke; he was mocking the kind of man who would do something like that.” Deluded by a hopeless—and hopelessly unsuitable—prospect, Cheryl’s reason nonetheless works in overdrive. I know what you’re thinking, she seems to say, defending herself before you can even get the words out.

Cheryl’s second love is for Kubelko Bondy, an infant for whom she developed a fierce affection as a child and whom she occasionally reencounters in other people’s children. “I knew that he loved me more than his mother and father and that in some very real and permanent way he belonged to me,” explains Cheryl of her first meeting with Kubelko. “Because I was only nine it wasn’t clear if he belonged to me as a child or as a spouse, but it didn’t matter, I felt myself rising up to the challenge of heartache.” Lacking both spouse and child, Cheryl—or Cheryl-July—devotes considerable focus to scatological concerns, continually drawing the reader’s awareness to her ability to produce waste. Her domestic life is regimented by a bizarre “system” by which she conserves toilet paper, eats straight out of a skillet, and otherwise restricts her consumption in preparation for moments of despair:

Let’s say a person is down in the dumps, or maybe just lazy, and they stop doing the dishes. Soon the dishes are piled sky-high and it seems impossible to even clean a fork. So the person starts eating with dirty forks out of dirty dishes and makes this person feel like a homeless person. So they stop bathing. Which makes it hard to leave the house. The person begins to throw trash everywhere and pee in cups because they’re closer to the bed. We’ve all been this person, so there is no place for judgment.

Only when she finds love in the novel’s second act does Cheryl let go of her hypercontrolled chaos and settle back down to earth, where the challenge of heartbreak indeed lies in wait. By a few twists of fate, Cheryl finds real-life love (with a baby or a man, I won’t say) and then loses it again, and then finds it again—in turn puncturing her self-consciousness and strangeness, and then launching it back into the stratosphere.

Kraus and her work bridge the divide between generations of women writing about the brutality of female desire, with her influences—among them Acker, Sophie Calle—on one side and their Gen-X and Y protégés—Ariana Reines, Kate Zambreno—on the other, many of whom frequently work in the first person and have been published by Semiotext(e), the imprint Kraus founded with Sylvère Lotringer. What sets these writers apart from newcomers who cite them as influences—Sheila Heti, Lena Dunham—is the high-octane nature of their prose and the depth of thinking within it, often landing their writing on the discursive interstices between genres. Their narrators are wizened by the present moment, never by the grace of hindsight. Trafficking in the tropes of the female grotesque—the slut, the Madonna, the hag—it is work that, as Kraus herself says, “doesn’t try to make itself loveable.” (In the same interview with Sleek magazine, Kraus indirectly accuses both July and Dunham of attempted lovability, albeit long before the publication of The First Bad Man.)

Despite its comically tidy ending (an epilogue shifts into the third person, bookending the novel with Cheryl’s filmic fantasies) July’s ruthlessness with the book’s narrator and her engagement with the consuming intensity of a woman’s desire to express her own love places The First Bad Man among a feminist literature whose protagonists struggle to be feminists themselves. Like narrator-Kraus and Cheryl, these are women who fall apart when it isn’t enough to do what they—we—do best. When the virtues of femininity—emotional stewardship, verbal acuity, affective housekeeping—fail to merit the women who possess them the companionship in which to exercise them. When empathy becomes insanity. Like narrator-Kraus, Cheryl exercises the strange power of casting herself out.

“When I am beset by abjection,” Julia Kristeva writes in Powers of Horror, “the twisted braid of affects and thoughts I call by such a name does not have, properly speaking, a definable object. […] The abject has only one quality of the object—that of being opposed to I.” What’s left of women’s fiction, one is bound to wonder, without the subjective “I,” that feminine lens through which experience is filtered? As Kraus herself said, Céline’s “I” of Journey to the End of Night is a different one indeed than that of Weil, who “has been pathologized—she can’t get fucked, she’s manipulative and anorexic, she’s ugly and she dresses badly.” But by wresting herself an “I” with the power to expel, to dispose, to toss aside in disgust, the abject woman seizes a perverse control. This remarkable pas de deux puts the abject in her master’s arms, but allows our protagonist to take the lead. Like the patient who resists the praise of a therapist, the self-abnegation of the loveless—particularly when she is female—allows her to calibrate her narrative with her self-denigration. You don’t love me? asks the abject. You don’t like the way I look, act, talk, fuck? You don’t want to make a home with me? You don’t care what I desire, what I dream of, who I believe myself to be? Well, she says, in her infinite adorability and preternatural wisdom, neither do I.

We knew we were standing on a fault line, that the event that finally divided us would be tectonic in its intensity. But no amount of knowing could have dampened the ache of disappointment, so great that, like a blow to the skull, everything but the stars and colors of trauma and the concussive CRACK fell away. I was blighted by the force and speed with which the end had hit me, and I found myself endlessly replaying the memory of a last phone call, only weeks earlier, his voice on the other end swept up in something heady and sweet and maybe a little deranged: “I love you too much,” he told me. He never knew the half of it.

Morgan Childs is an American food and culture writer based in Prague, Czech Republic. www.morgan-childs.com

The First Bad Man by Miranda July • Scribner, 2015 • 288 pages

Photo courtesy of Helene Childs-Budelis

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