×
header-image

The Gloriously Irresponsible Career of Scott Bradfield

HIS FICTION IS FULL OF MARXIST SIXTH-GRADERS, DELUSIONAL SENIOR CITIZENS, AND UNETHICAL PENGUINS. BUT ONCE YOU GET USED TO THE SURREALISM, THE JARGON-FILLED, MEDIA-OBSESSED WORLD THEY INHABIT BEGINS TO LOOK STRANGELY FAMILIAR.
DISCUSSED
Invisible Men, Exile, Michael Chabon, Atlee Hammaker, Werewolves in Southern California, Donuts, The Beauty Myth, Louis Althusser, Mike Douglas, Prisons, Penguins, A Vegetarian Diet, Anarchy

The Gloriously Irresponsible Career of Scott Bradfield

Benjamin Strong
18 Snaps

In Scott Bradfield’s spook tale “Ghost Guessed,” a boy asks for a set of green plastic army men, the kind that come in “theatrical poses, firing rifles from a crouch, hurling grenades, charging with upraised bayonets.” Instead, he receives for Christmas an antique lead soldier, a French hussar standing erect, poised to salute a superior officer. “That hanging at his side is a sabertache, see? Now you must be very careful. It’s probably best not to remove the plastic wrapper,” his mother suggests. Was the author handed a similarly weighty disappointment when he was younger? In a recent essay, “Why I Hate Toni Morrison’s Beloved”—which, despite the provocative headline, he doesn’t really—Bradfield recalls inventing his own toy soldiers:

I remember this space on the hall floor, surrounded by books I couldn’t quite read, with great fondness. These books were far from objects of worship, and I played with them like toys, stacking them in interesting configurations—pyramids and forts and obelisks—and imagining what might happen if the characters they contained were to wander out of their books and transgress into one another’s spaces. Would Ellison’s Invisible Man be a match for the Invisible Man of H. G. Wells? Would Mailer’s naked soldiers perform bizarre and unconscionable acts with Samuel Butler’s flesh-bound travelers, very likely in a hot bath before bedtime? I played with these books and even developed a sense of commitment to reading them some day, when I grew up, because I wanted to know what was in them and wanted them to know what was in me.

This young Prospero’s mischievous imagination already shows the chops of the grown novelist. After all, to conceive of golems and to fashion himself their omniscient deity is what the fiction writer habitually does. Play along with your own library. Picture the lawless hall floor where the residents of Bradfield’s own titles meet in wars of irreconcilable worlds. Would the citizens of an Animal Planet (1995) respond to Greetings from Earth (1996) with canine hospitality or feline skepticism? Or just a feral preemptive strike? And does The Secret Life of Houses (1988) lie buried beneath a cellar door, hiding the forensic clues to What’s Wrong with America (1994)? Sadly, these bibliographic thrillers are likely performed only along a bookshelf of the mind. Good Girl Wants It Bad, Scott Bradfield’s fourth novel, was published in August by Carroll & Graf as a paperback original, but the earlier novels and short-story collections of this howlingly funny, too-neglected American writer (who turned forty-nine this year) remain entirely out of print. In translation, some can be purchased new in Holland, Germany, Switzerland, and France, but in the United States you’ll need to search for English-language editions secondhand.

Bradfield has taught writing and literature at the University of Connecticut–Storrs since 1989 and lives half of each year in London, where he has a small son. As a result, he’s displaced first from his native state, California, where most of his fiction used to take place, and then part-time from America altogether. An obscure writer depends on a Jamesian arrangement or else a job, and teaching at least affords him the necessary hours to write. But at heart he’s an exile, and American exiles (think Patricia Highsmith or Paul Bowles, precursors on his syllabus) don’t usually get the audience their work deserves.

Born in San Francisco, he spent apprentice years after high school in Los Angeles, typing fledgling efforts before enrolling at UCLA. He met Philip K. Dick once in those days, another unacknowledged laureate of the drab Orange County municipalities—Santa Ana, Fullerton, Anaheim— where Bradfield would set his second novel, What’s Wrong with America. Dick was “mad in that benign, California way,” Bradfield says, who, minus that “benign,” could be talking about Emma O’Hallahan, America’s unhinged, brandy-swilling grandmother.

In the mid 1980s, as a grad student in nineteenth-century American literature at UC Irvine, he befriended another aspiring writer, Michael Chabon, who was earning his MFA. Both were fans of The Rockford Files, J. G. Ballard, and Atlee Hammaker, the San Francisco Giants pitcher, who’s on the mound against the Dodgers during a pivotal scene in Bradfield’s debut novel, The History of Luminous Motion (1989). Chabon recalls that “Scott was highly critical of almost everything, starting with himself; yet he could be kind of a softie, too, unabashed about it. He was very fond of some of the dewiest Van Morrison records.” Bradfield was already placing wry stories in the seminal British-science fiction journal Interzone, and in genre anthologies with shamelessly beckoning titles (Tarot Tales and The Mammoth Book of Werewolves), yet many of his English-department peers didn’t know he was writing fiction. “He was a much better, more sophisticated, and disciplined writer than almost anyone in the MFA program,” Chabon says, “but most of us had no idea he was even there.”

 

CALIFORNIA DREAMING

The Southern California conjured in Dream of the Wolf (1990) is not the one you see on TV. It’s a vast windy grid connecting loneliness with affordable housing and reasonably priced franchise restaurants. (“There was a time in Southern California when all you had to do was take a nice girl to Marie Callender’s for dinner and she was yours forever,” Bradfield remembers.) It’s an exact place, alienated but literal—in a very important sense, not made up. Los Angeles literature, like Hollywood films, has tended to recycle the same tired downtown locations, while ignoring the mundane life of the Southland’s ordinary people (a subject illuminated in Thom Andersen’s recent documentary, Los Angeles Plays Itself). Most Angelenos are spread out in subdivisions across the off-camera flatland, in between the prohibitively expensive homes along the beach and in the hills.These blue-collar and striving, lower-middle-class communities are as far from a film noir set as a desert of the real gets. Bradfield’s grifters and handymen, waitresses and cult leaders, nosy neighbors and telephone customer-service reps all rent here.

Literary America was Raymond Carver country in the 1980s. Carver’s thirsty failures would put Bradfield’s daiquiri drinkers under the table after a few rounds, but only if their Oregonian taciturnity could endure these inveterate gabbers, who, even sober, like to talk—especially when they don’t know what they’re talking about—loudly and with authority, and not always to communicate. Bradfield claims to have read Crime and Punishment a half-dozen times as a teenager; Dostoyevsky, he writes, is “one of those rare writers who lives up to the hype.” You can hear the polyphonics and digressive monologues of Bradfield’s favorite Russian in the breathless high notes spewing from his gallery of cranks. Lieutenant Jack Hollister, Animal Planet’s authoritarian naval intelligence officer, cites Hobbes on nature approvingly (“nasty, brutish, and short”), but views Rousseau less favorably: “Go back to nature, he kept saying. Be one with glorious Mother Nature. Kiss the earth, fuck an Indian, marry a tree. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, incidentally, was a self-confessed masturbator, liar, thief, and perhaps even a homosexual.”

It takes a police car in the distance to break this suburban spell. These living rooms may look normal, but domestic harmony is perpetually a siren away from disappearing into a twilight zone. Tell-tale black hearts and mousy dispositions alike manage to suppress their darker impulses only with fleeting success. “I mean your mom wants you to have this idyllic childhood and all. She thinks this is Camelot or something, your childhood,” explains a hardware-store owner to his girlfriend’s son. “Well, I want you to know, kiddo. I looked up ‘idyllic’ in the dictionary and I wouldn’t hold my breath. I wouldn’t lie in bed all day just waiting for some idyllic childhood to come along.”

But lying in bed, imagining a different life—dreaming: what other salve does quiet desperation have? In the title story from Dream of the Wolf, Larry Chambers shares his nocturnal visions as a Canis lupus tundrarum, an Alaskan tundra wolf, with his rapt daughter over her morning cereal.

I was surrounded by a vast white plain and sparse gray patches of vegetation. I loped along at a brisk pace, quickening the hot pulse of my blood. I felt extraordinarily swift, hungry, powerful…” Larry gripped his donut; red jelly squirted across his knuckles.

Limited to hunting at night, like the drunken old sailor in the Wallace Stevens poem who catches tigers only in his sleep, Larry develops an addiction to day-dreaming. Soon, he flubs responsibilities at the office and at home. He forgets to shave or to kiss his daughter goodbye in the morning, to itemize bills, and get the Goodyear flyers down to Costa Mesa on time. Instead, he reads Hesse’s Steppenwolf as oneirocriticism and studies the taxonomic guides to wolves that he checks out of the Fairfax branch library. One night, he experiences life during the Pleistocene, a geological period that ended ten thousand years ago.

“Where is that, Daddy?”

“It’s not a place, honey. It’s a time.A long time ago.”

“You mean dinosaurs, Daddy?

Did you dream you were a dinosaur?”

“No, darling. The dinosaurs were all gone by then. I was Canisdirus, I think. I’ll check on it.”

Degraded on the one hand by pop psychology and suspense clichés, and by soft-filtered lighting on the other, dreams have become the harmless driftwood of our unconscious—flotsam, insubstantial. “Without the dream one would have found no occasion for a division of the world” goes the epigraph to “Dream of the Wolf,” an aphorism taken from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human. Nietzsche didn’t trust dreams; he didn’t trust much. He saw them as an obstacle to enlightenment, a regrettable and hideous devolution into savagery, the mind dragged once again through the muddy ontology of its simian-faced ancestors. Larry, leading a hungry pack over the icy tundra, travels further than Nietzsche imagined, to an epoch when wolves purportedly hunted alongside human beings. We still sport Nietzsche’s rationalist armor, but Larry’s lycanthropy tears right through it. The blood spilled suggests that the wall we build to keep the dream away from the day is a porous one.

 

THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF MOTION

Dreams notwithstanding, Bradfield’s intoxicating brand of surrealism, however hypnotic, requires some readerly adjustment. Michiko Kakutani, reviewing The History of Luminous Motion in the New York Times, acknowledged the book’s “volatile imagination” but primly declined to accept his adults, who don’t “speak or act like recognizable human beings” or his children, whose interests are not “even remotely like anything ever dreamed of by an 8-year-old.” Kakutani probably has in mind, for example, a scene in Luminous Motion where Beatrice, an independent-minded sixth-grader, explains the “beauty myth” to a couple of schoolmates underneath the fluorescent glow inside a Winchell’s Donuts. (Donuts and philosophy are recurring features of Bradfield’s California.)

The culture industry hasn’t invented ‘beauty’ in order to control how we look, but how we are, and that’s the scary part. How we think. How we be. I guess you guys should know right away I’m a Marxist. I support the Sandinistas, and the leftist guerilla forces in Chad. I’m not a vulgar Marxist or anything—I mean, I don’t pick my nose in public (that’s supposed to be a little joke)— no, I guess you’d have to call me a post-structuralist Marxist. I give credit to Althusser, but I’m not an acolyte of anybody’s. Anyway”—with another little flourish of her black purse—” if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to find a ladies’ room.

Ennui-ridden Rodney, also a sixth-grader, suspects that Beatrice’s Marxism “may be another load of crap.” A typical Bradfield malcontent, Rodney despairs of routine: acute angles, sentence diagrams, and afternoons at the bowling alley or the mall. “We scope the girls, smoke a little doobidge, maybe a tab of acid every now and then. But that’s not really living is it? I mean, if that’s living, then excuse me right now. I’ll go out and put a bullet in the old brain-pan.” Rodney’s friend Phillip, the eight-year-old narrator of Luminous Motion, also suffers from boredom, but he’s considerably more industrious. Intent on wealth and a Daisy, little Jimmy Gatz rose each dawn for his own curriculum of self-improvement, one part exercise, four parts study of electricity. Phillip is just as ambitious as Fitzgerald’s entrepreneur, and although he’s already overbooked in the hard sciences, he adds philosophy to his reading list after he meets Beatrice. While she examines an eyelash with a compact mirror, he summarizes what he’s learned:

If we can’t go other places, we can be those other places instead. My mom always said that’s why we’re Californians—because we don’t need to be here. We can always be anywhere else in the universe besides California, and still be here too. America’s the dialectic. It’s what Hegel talks about in The Phenomenology of Mind. The dialectic.

Okay, Phillip is a vulgar Hegelian. But strip away the jargon (have you tried to read Hegel lately?) and you’re left with something recognizable: a prodigy, a boy like the one who dreamed of toy soldiers on his hallway floor, with no occasion to divide the objective world from his precocious fantasies.“I was beginning to learn that the imaginative act was more important than action itself,” Phillip says.“Action merely articulated you with an exterior and superficial network of facts, data, and information which superimposed itself across the real world of my imagination like a restraint, or a clinging, oily film.” Does Phillip not then commit the gruesome acts of which he has only hazy memories? Are they hallucinations?

Phillip may be a delusional, psychotic Oedipus. The History of Luminous Motion, apropos of its title, begins lyrically and on the run, in an aged Rambler carrying Phillip and his mother up and down California. A Sophoclean Humbert and Lo, they need only each other on the road.When low on cash or fuel, they pull over to the nearest gasoline-motel oasis, the one-Travelodge towns like King City that line Highway 101. Mom visits a local dive, selects a date, and cleans him out while he’s still asleep; the spoils, credit cards mostly, go in a plastic box inside the glove compartment. The Rambler comes to an abrupt halt in San Luis Obispo (Bradfield lived there as a child) after mom meets Pedro, a dopey ex-ballplayer. She retires her rap sheet—“I’ve stopped keeping track of the felonies. I think that’s the compensation that comes with age—not wisdom”—and inflicts an unforgivable horror on Phillip, school. “I was assigned to the intermediate level Red, due to my own deliberate stumbling over consonantal clusters and mixed vowels. I was determined none of these strangers would know me.”

Soon, Phillip’s dad emerges to restore the conventional two-car-garage patriarchy. The bulk of the novel concerns Phillip’s plot to murder his father with a combination of slow poisons he concocts from Rodney’s unused chemistry set, not to mention amateur Satanic rituals (averse to math, Rodney has been studying witchcraft).

 

THE LUNATIC IS ON THE CRABGRASS

Reality never exactly slips into focus in The History of Luminous Motion, fulfilling Nietzsche’s worry about the “foolishness within” getting carried away. But as long as we’re tearing down walls, what about the foolishness outside our heads? Retired grandfather Marvin O’Hallahan, the boorish patriot and firearms enthusiast of What’s Wrong with America, drafts scores of white-supremacist pamphlets (“Tooth and Claw,” “Savage Sunrise for Mankind”), maintains a list of who and what are to fault for his country’s demise, devotedly watches Wheel of Fortune, and bullies his homemaker wife, Emma. She can’t stand Wheel of Fortune and she shoots him, buries him in the backyard of their Orange County tract home, and begins her own treatise about the state of the nation. The most succinct among Emma’s insights—“Not enough gun control,” “Too many women on Valium, not enough men”—are reasonable enough, but they justify specious crimes, enumerated in her tally of People Who May Be Buried in the Back Garden. Emma’s memory isn’t what it used to be: at number six is “Nobody (i.e. I just dug the hole and filled it in during a period of especially bad derangement).” In another one of these “periods,” she participates in a talk-show panel whose other members include Mike Douglas and her brandy bottle. What’s Wrong with America is a pitch-perfect record of the inevitable body count in the shock-pundit radio decade before bloggers, Bush, and Fox News raised Pat Buchanan’s ante.

Good Girl Wants It Bad, Bradfield’s first novel in nine years, finds the author still tuned to the avenging chorus of a nation parroting received spin. Delilah Riordan— her friends call her Lah—awaits lethal injection at the West Texas Women’s Penitentiary for multiple counts of murder. She’s a hot topic on the Internet and syndicated crime shows, though her warden is angling for a network appearance, hopefully on 60 Minutes 2. Meursault on death row had only to contend with a sniveling priest to keep salvation at bay. Lah, who believes the worst kind of man is the one who wants to save you, suffers a team of doctors intending, if not to rehabilitate her, at least to learn from her pathology. Dr. Alexander, the most unscrupulous clinician, rejects therapeutic resolution. He employs a Confrontational Analysis method of belligerent questions—“How much would it cost your mother to send you a postcard, Lah? Forty cents?”— designed to enrage her.Which they do, ending in a Confrontation and a wired jaw with diminished capacity to provoke or masticate. “Eye. Ate. Chew. Eye. Ate. Chew,” he tells her.

Bursting with up-to-date namechecks, Good Girl Wants it Bad still feels claustrophobic, a prison novel. It makes no reference to the events of September 11 and gives no impression of a defensive nation under siege from anything but itself. Bradfield had already completed a third of the novel in the fall of 2001, and he didn’t believe those attacks changed anything about the America he was writing about. “To me a fiction writer must write about the world he or she knows, but with a sense of glorious irresponsibility,” he says. After taking a stab at a novel herself (The Saga of Danielle: A Semifictional Account of a True-Life Story), Lah comes to the same conclusion: “I don’t know how people do it, writing books and then listening to what people say about them. It’s like they can’t understand the simplest things. As in: It’s fiction, get me? As in: I made it all up.”

Solipsism, not history, is the dream from which these characters cannot awake. The language of psychotherapy has so fully distorted their American vernacular that their pursuit of happiness no longer points to an ever-more-perfect democracy, just a future in which everyone will be self-actualized for fifteen minutes. There’s a creepy gothic tradition of sympathetic murderers (Cormac McCarthy’s necrophilic Child of God is its supreme, lightning-rod expression) but Lah derives from the impertinent, deliriously amoral universe of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280. In other words, she’s guilty as sin but she’s charming—and she’s honest. Refusing to judge others, Lah looks outward from inside America’s fastest-growing industry, and naturally she sees only hypocrisy.“If there’s one thing you learn from being unfairly classed as a criminal it’s that holier-than-thou types are the worst criminals of all.”

 

MONKEY SUITS

Bradfield has a weakness for lady killers, but he reserves some of his most tender writing for bears, rats, pigs, penguins, and dogs. Few writers of his skill have so thoroughly explored the fable form. If Bradfield has a Rabbit Angstrom—an irascible chronicler of a shape-shifting United States—it’s Dazzle, a mutt beset by fleas and vet-prescribed pharmaceuticals, who is the subject of a trilogy of short stories (only one of which has appeared in book form).

When Billy hid the antibiotic pills in tiny edible lumps of Dazzle’s Alpo, Dazzle would carefully disengage and deposit them behind the hot water boiler where nobody, to his knowledge, ever cleaned. He had heard too much about the debilitating effect of antibiotics on the body’s immune system, and anyway, he knew his grief was not merely physiochemical.

Dazzle runs away and takes up with another dog, Edwina, who likes to bring mangy strays home and fuck them in the bushes beside their trashcan. Dazzle has outgrown petty jealousy, but he warns Edwina of the possible consequences of her promiscuity: “Rabies. Yeah, you heard me. Frothing at the mouth.” They start a family and move to Big Sur to raise their pups, yet Dazzle can’t shake the void.

Creature comforts are enough, however, for Whistling Pete, Animal Planet’s Enronian penguin, who embezzles from the company to fill the undeniable hollowness inside. “This is the life,”Pete says about the daily romps in the Crystal Palace Motel that follow his margarita lunches. “This is what the All-Mighty Penguin had in mind when he designed such cute little penguinettes.”Then his theft is uncovered and Pete loses his job and his mistresses. He dies withered in Room 408.Animal Planet pictures a global civil-rights movement that frees the furrier races from their zoo cages only to imprison them in a human society. Biology run amok exposes our consumer rites for what they are—the latest elaborate scheme to avoid our own nature. “Civilization doesn’t solve problems,” Whistling Pete realizes. “It reminds us of all the problems we haven’t yet solved.”

The Grimm news continues in “Pig Paradise,” Bradfield’s latest story, in the current Denver Quarterly. A Cultural Intercession desegregates pigs from wolves, and as condition of their uneasy armistice, both species submit to a diet PETA would endorse: Mama O’Brian’s frozen All-Veggie Pies. Porcine Hubert has the sense that something’s wrong with this America. “You’re trying to say that I hurt your feelings, I’m not open-minded enough, I don’t treat you like, like an equal or something,” he tells his toothy boss. “But life isn’t like that, Harry. Everybody’s different, and everybody treats each other different, and I don’t care what they say in the Employee Guidelines.”

Bradfield’s animals are tribal misfits, individuals who chafe at the shackles of multinational corporations and the law just like their human counterparts.William Godwin, husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, father of Mary Shelley, and author of Lives of the Necromancers, a kind of black-magic Plutarch, always claimed he wasn’t an anarchist, although he advocated a free society without a state and wrote an angry prison novel, Things As They Are; or the Adventures of Caleb Williams.“Political corruption for Godwin” Bradfield argues, “is not, as our modern age might try to argue, a thing of the human heart, but rather of the human heart’s confinement; Caleb is never pursued by evil men so much as he conspires with the scheme of his own persecution.”

Conformity is just a conspiracy to betray our best selves, and as Lah can tell you, it only represses temporarily that which will not stay bound. Emma O’Hallahan isn’t proud of killing her husband, but she knows that the real reason she makes a terrible role model for her grandchildren is that she tolerated her husband’s abuse for decades and denied her own heart.“The other part of my activities which probably isn’t a positive role model is that I think I’m going to get away with it,” Emma says. “Because your grandpa was always firing off his shotgun at the drop of a hat, none of the neighbors seemed to notice when I did it.” Once Bradfield’s revolutionaries escape the jails of conventional morality—maximum-security penitentiaries, kennels, hospitals, violent spouses, academic critical theory, and waking consciousness itself—they discover, as Emma does, that they’ve been stranded all along on the Planet of the Lemmings, where people don’t know anything they aren’t told. Lady Liberty stands half-buried and askew somewhere in a corner of this frame.

More Reads
Essays

To Be Continued…

Hanif Abdurraqib
Essays

A Voice More Beautiful Than Blue

Katie Booth
Essays

The Devil’s Bargain

Casey Jarman
more