Guest Review: 'Fractals,' an Essay Collection by William Bradley
A long-anticipated debut collection, on "love, death, fear, and a life filled with nerdy pop culture obsessions."
Fractals. William Bradley. Lavender Ink. February 2016. $16.00 (paperback).
Review by Renée E. D’Aoust
In The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative (Swallow Press/Ohio University Press), Thomas Larson suggests that personal narrative has been primarily labeled by subject (“childhood, coming-of-age, love-life,” for example) and “that we’re not close to labeling memoir by style, such as narrative, sudden, detective, assembled, or reflective.”
William Bradley’s Fractals, a collection of memoiristic essays, falls under the reflective form. These essays are engaged with the mind at work, and we follow Bradley as he ventures around the contours of his thoughts. I’m always struck by how the best writers exemplify curiosity in action. The movement of his writer’s mind holds the collection together; these pieces do not depend on a narrative to move forward to a false finish. The book builds to a cumulative whole using forms essayist Ned Stuckey-French rightly calls Bradley’s “fractal-essays, fragmented miniatures.”
How to label Bradley’s collection of micro essays points to how to read these talismans of a big-hearted life. It’s not a cancer memoir, per se, though cancer (and survival) figures prominently, but so do daytime soap operas such as Days of Our Lives. Bradley writes, “[T]he thing about soap operas—and this gets left out when people criticize them—is that virtue is always rewarded, and vice is always punished.” I’m reminded of how In the Body of the World: A Memoir of Cancer and Connection, Eve Ensler, during cancer treatment, obsessively watches the nighttime soap Friday Night Lights.
Throughout 25 essays, a prologue, and epilogue, Bradley connects high and low culture, chemo brain with curious brain, and the medical marvels of successful cancer treatment with Marvel comics. American soaps provide a soothing and consistent background; after all, Bradley provides an alternative name for the epilogue, “On Soap Operas or We Read and Watch Our Stories In Order to Live.” He reads all kinds of genres, and celebrates all kinds of stories. The collection starts with a “Prologue: On Soap Operas Or The Bald and the Beautiful”; Bradley writes:
As I watched while chemotherapy devoured my cancer—and the lining of my stomach, and my hair follicles— I was struck by the feeling that some of these shows might go on forever. Many of them—'The Young and the Restless,' 'Days of Our Lives,' 'General Hospital'—were on long before I was born, and it was easy enough to imagine that they would continue long after I am gone.
As my condition deteriorated, my mother and I moved from the couch in the living room to the uncomfortable, sterilized furniture of the hospital room (perhaps a dying room) in Ann Arbor. And still those beautiful people appeared on the glowing box, alternately pledging eternal love and planning corporate takeovers. The shows came on everyday, predictable as predestination, while I got sicker and sicker. In that hospital room, handsome men made love to beautiful women while I vomited up tiny mouthfuls of bile—all that was left in my stomach—and felt my intestines burn with painful diarrhea, all while the tissue in my mouth cracked and fell apart.
Bradley was "diagnosed with cancer—Hodgkin’s Disease—three times between the ages of 21 and 24.” Though I’ve already focused on cancer in this review, I appreciate that Bradley does not make having had and surviving cancer his identity. Despite rounds of treatments and the real possibility of cancer returning, which necessitates a frank and devastatingly sad conversation with his fiancée, the disease is simply woven throughout his life events and interests. Though he wishes he might stay in the altered and heightened state so many of us experience when confronted with our mortality—“I vowed to never forget, to try to be a better person”—Bradley admits that he returns to the picayune absurdities that make up a life. Yet honest conversations form the core of his relationship with his wife, and what’s more, they have a lot of fun together. In this sense, though he may report that he is not as good a person as he wants to be, he has been changed by cancer; Bradley lives in the present moment:
It is generally understood that she is the serious one, and that I’m the fool she puts up with. She plays the straight man, rolling her eyes and groaning at me. Deep down, though, I think part of the reason we get along so well is that she finds me charming in my goofiness.
Bradley’s sense that cancer is both special and nothing special resonates with me, because it’s so familiar to how my mom treated her bouts with cancer. It doesn’t mean that repeated diagnoses aren’t sad. It doesn’t mean that the treatments aren’t horrific. It means that the person realizes the possibility of living fully and embracing a human identity, not a sick or survivor identity. Cancer may still be a wake-up call that necessitates drastic life changes, but it doesn’t become the sole definition of the totality of one’s existence. Perhaps this is one reason why I find Bradley’s essays so beguiling. I’m carried along by his inquisitiveness, by what he calls his “goofiness.”
Bradley’s micro-essays add up to a gestalt—the formation, disintegration, and reformation of a life. Pieces that deal with his formation primarily cover events from his childhood while pieces that deal with his cancer bespeak of disintegration. Reformation happens throughout in the sense of wanting to do and be better. But though I’ve laid them out as if they occur chronologically, these phases overlap, especially in “Chrononaut”:
I would be sitting at my desk, writing or grading student papers, and suddenly I’d feel overwhelmed with the memory of, say, the smell of incense in the dorm my freshman year of college, or a cheesy pop song that they used to play at the roller skating rink when I was in elementary school. And I’d have to set my pen down, take my glasses off, and sigh with the realization that I was remembering something from my life that I’d forgotten and would no doubt forget again.
A few of the later essays repeat information we have already learned. As one small example, we hear several times that he and his wife are academics. It may be an aesthetic choice when collecting previously published essays to edit out such repetition. The previous publication list of Bradley’s micro essays is impressive (the Acknowledgments is a veritable list of where to publish micro essays, including Brevity and Full Grown People). I also wished for a few more places where scenic development and description might offset contemplative thought and inquiry. I realize, however, that these are not scene-based essays but “reflective” in form, as Thomas Larson reminds us in The Memoir and the Memoirist.
One of the most enchanting pieces, “Dream Child: A Reverie,” originally published online in Sweet: A Literary Confection, experiments with the impossible future as Bradley imagines the child he does not have. Here and elsewhere, the sincerety of Fractals comes from Bradley’s good heart. His curiosity and inclusive nature creates an architecture through which his mind journeys. Although it is heart-wrenching to read of the intense loneliness Bradley experienced during multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, self-pity is entirely absent: "Once upon a time—when I was 22 years old—a doctor told me there was only a 40% chance that I would live to see 27. I’m 38 now. I have been very lucky, and I hope I don’t sound too selfish when I say that I hope this streak of good luck keeps going for a very long time."
In “Best Thing,” Bradley writes: “The worst thing about having cancer when you’re young—if your experience is anything like mine—is knowing that the world is moving on without you.” But even while expressing his isolation, Bradley relates to others, knowing others may have been through similar travails. He reaches out to the reader—"if your experience is anything like mine"— even as the world, and Bradley with it, moves on.
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