Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Brenda Bowen

A former children’s book publisher, Brenda Bowen is now a literary agent and children’s book author. Her new novel is Enchanted August.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Bowen's reply:
At last year’s Book Expo conference in New York, I was accosted by a wilting publicist at the Scribner booth. It was almost the end of the event, and supplies, and energy, were running low. “Miranda July?” she said, hopefully.

I snapped up the galley she offered me. One Summer Friday a few years ago, I had left the office blissfully at 1PM and headed down to the Independent Film Center in the Village to see Miranda July’s oddball film The Future. It was “highly idiosyncratic,” to quote one reviewer: ostensibly about a couple of tentative Brooklynites who adopts a cat, it was really about the workings of July’s highly neurotic mind. I loved it.

So when I got the galley for The First Bad Man a year ago I read it right away. And I just read it again – this time in hardcover – last month. “Highly idiosyncratic” almost does not do it justice. Here’s a book about a woman, Cheryl, who is so caught up in the minutiae of her own life that she does not even have a second set of silverware for guests. She had even codified this shut-off way of life. Although, “It doesn’t have a name,” she says in the book. “I just call it my system.”

Cheryl’s system works so well that her footprint on this earth is very tiny indeed: “After days and days alone [the system] gets silky to the point where I can’t feel it any more. It’s as if I don’t exist.”

Into this blinkered, limited life bursts Clee, a difficult, petulant, angry, short-shorts-wearing teenager who is foisted on Cheryl for reasons that only happen in a Miranda July story. She is to Cheryl’s life what the endpapers of this book are to the cover – a shocking burst of color in a monochrome existence. [See the images below right.] The two of them go from being antagonists in the etymological sense to becoming a badly-assorted couple to growing into a most improbable family. (Exactly how that family is constructed is left neatly to the reader’s interpretation of the very last pages. A nice, writerly sleight of hand by Miranda July.)

July’s ability to lay every single thought and anxiety bare is something I admire and am amazed by. There is nothing she won’t tell the reader. Here is Cheryl, when her extreme puzzlement at the idea that she might be loved leads her to be cruel:

“Her feelings. I had hurt them. She had feelings and I had hurt them. I stared at the bathroom door, one hand against the wall to steady myself.”

The book takes a long and wacky turn in the middle as Cheryl and Clee work through their own charged relationship, but by the end, when a certain character improbably named Kubelko Bondy appears on the scene, the book is tenderness itself.

Love, family, weird sex, motherhood, the modern office, the effect of a certain green corduroy dress – it’s all here in The First Bad Man. Give Miranda July a try if you’re not devoted to her already. If there’s hope for her crazy Cheryl (and there is!), there’s hope for us all.
Visit Brenda Bowen's website.

--Marshal Zeringue