There’s a review by Laura Millar, published in The Guardian on February 11th 2015, that describes this book as “strenuously quirky”. Millar didn’t like it, writing:
Eccentricities, as uncountable as the sands of the Sahara, drift and blow through this book, piling up in dunes that must be scaled by characters and readers alike.
She concludes with:
It’s true that if you dig deeply enough, you can find something bizarre about almost anyone. When, however, the focus for nearly 300 pages is on a relatively small cast, the multiplying weirdness becomes unamusing absurdity.
Four days earlier, the same paper published another review on the same book by Eva Wiseman, arguing that the word ‘quirky’ is deliberately used to dismiss women’s work as silly. Wiseman writes:
To be quirky is to be whimsical. To be frivolous, naive, awkward, self-conscious. To have disproportionately large eyes and a faraway gaze. It is to be twee. It defines a character by her eccentricities rather than inviting you to see them as a whole.
I’m guessing some of this is less about The First Bad Man, and more about July’s earlier work, like this:
Based on that, I’d had a few people tell me I’d hate this book; that it would be too emotional or too wacky for my taste.
This turned out to be incorrect. Rightly or wrongly, it reminded me of some of my favourite authors: John Kennedy Toole, early Evelyn Waugh, Mitford and, dare I say it, Wodehouse. If we look at something like Waugh’s Scoop or Mitford’s Wigs on the Green, they rely on caricatures whose ‘quirkiness’ acts as a device to parody serious topics; the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and British Fascism respectively. If you read those books seeking to avoid absurdity and encounter ‘whole’ characters you’ll be disappointed.
July’s novel seems so much in the same tradition I was honestly surprised to find people treating it as a Realist novel, wanting to ‘dig deeply’ into her characters or trying to see them ‘as a whole’. Not being particularly familiar with her other work, I read The First Bad Man as satire. Her characters aren’t that much different from Waugh’s inept William Boot, Mitford’s precocious Eugenia Malmain, Toole’s Ignatius or any number of ‘quirky’ Wodehouse characters.
Indeed, the book’s narrator, Cheryl, seems decidedly Wodehouse; mawkishly likeable and bumbling her way through various antics until she reaches her happy ending. I thought it notable that both Wodehouse and July have written for film, because their books both read like ensemble pieces, built on dialogue, very few locations and slapstick. Like Wodehouse, July takes familiar tropes, rhetorical devices and narrative arcs and pushes them just far enough they become hilarious.
The critique of ‘quirkiness’ seems to come from a thwarted attempt to read The First Bad Man as some sort of realistic portrayal of the author’s emotion. Is this because of her gender, because women aren’t meant to be funny or satirical, or simply because there’s too many reviewers hell bent on assuming smart writing has to be painstakingly earnest? Who knows. I thought this was a great book.
Would My Mother Like This Book?
Possibly. It portrays a middle aged woman, isn’t about heterosexuals or men, and doesn’t take itself too seriously.