TOM BRADLEY'S HYPNONOVEL: "VITAL FLUID" (PLUS SPECIAL BONUS INTERVIEW)
Eagle-eyed regulars may have noticed the occasional mention of exiled American novelist Tom Bradley on these pages. Time to fill in few blanks, I think.
Stylistically speaking, Tom's a tricky so-and-so to pin down: his more recent work has found him forging linkages and alliances w/ the Bizarro formation of writers, but he's been spraying his spoor over blank pages for ages now - since some of those guys were wearing cabbage-leaves for diapers - and tho his work often has a quasi-Absurdist bent to it I think he comes from somewhere different altogether and Bizarroism is almost a convenient intersect - a flag of convenience - a name that someone's dreamt up for all the stuff that don't quite fit anywhere else, and some of Tom's output just happens to overlap with some of the Bizarro, erm, oeuvre. Well, rightly or wrongly, that's how it strikes me, anyway.
Tom's work seems to be less about, uh, overt absurdism - he's big on plot and linearity, is Tom, so don't be scared - and more about the magnification or extrapolation of character; the people that populate his books and stories often possess tics or quirks or obsessive traits that are deliberately exaggerated out to the nth degree - like a Stretch Armstrong doll pulled out to breaking point by a curious child determined to find out what material it's really made from. In this respect Tom seems almost more like a satirist or literary characaturist, so it's easy to see why this might sometimes be superficially mistaken for absurdism.
Yet for all their playful - and sometimes disturbing - personal quirks his characters are still recognisably human - scarily so, in fact, in the way they respond to others or navigate their way thru the world. Their emotional road-maps are distorted by an inner mirror in ways that we can all identify with. It's just the amount of distortion that we're unused to; we can see little bits of the worst and best or ourselves in Tom's Cavalcade of the Damaged and take comfort in the fact that, well, maybe, we're not so bad after all.
He's got a great eye for People-Detail.
Tho it's not just the people in Tom's twisted word-movies that take a kicking, but relationships, institutions, authority-figures, etc and, to his credit, you can gauge where his own personal values lie from what he leaves out rather than what he puts in. It's a measure of his maturity as a writer that he knows exactly when to knock down the voltage rather than ramp it up. He's a clever guy, is Tom; a satirist and also maybe a bit of a Moralist too, I suspect, but certainly never preachy.
He's also funny as fuck. Did I mention that already?
Well, he is.
He first hit my radar with a quote about Gogol that was attibuted to him. This, from my Goodreads page:
Or: Gogolisation if yr a Brit like me.
I love this quote from Tom Bradley on Wikipedia, who "traces the roots [of Bizarro] back thru literary history to the time of Vladimir Nabokov's Gogolization "and his cry of despair and horror at having his central nervous system colonized: "...after reading Gogol, one's eyes become Gogolized. One is apt to see bits of his world in the most unexpected places." Bradley claims the Bizarro movement is continuing and fulfilling that Gogolization process, under the name Bizarroization.""
Next, I checked some of his on-line short-stories and was bowled over by the way his narratives surfed high-levels of informational density (in the form of overloaded character tropes) with a sort of Zen-like fluidity and grace. Paragraphs that would be unnecesarily syrupy, soupy and unworkable in a lesser writer's hands just, well, flowed... His characters seemed so incredibly human, despite themselves. Or maybe because of themselves. Still, it was dense, rich and incredibly tasty fare, yet Tom made the swallowing of it oh-so very smooth and easy. It was masterly work (and I was jealous as hell).
His most recent novel "Vital Fluid" is a Hypnonovel. (Or Hypnovel?) That is to say, it's seemingly about hypnosis, yet at the same time it ain't. So that makes the writing (and the reading of it) a form of hypnosis in itself, innit?
That was a rhetorical question, by the way.
Stylistically, I found this a lean n clean read. A very smooth, easy n fast read. Deceptively simple, it sidestepped the fluid hyperdense prose style of some of his shorter pieces, yet here he somehow manages to organise parallel naratives on several levels at once w/out making the reader feel cramped and claustrophobic or overwhelmed by detail. There's a lot going on in this book, yet it's airy and open and extremely readable. And that's a fucking artform in itself.
I read this book very quickly - not because it was flimsy, fluffy or hollow, but because it was a helluva lot of fun and it just barrelled along beeeeeoowwwwwwl carrying me along in its wake.
It tracks the rivalry between a pair of rival modern-day stage hypnotists - Phil Deacon and Simon Magus - as they stage a series of increasingly surreal 'performances' in an attempt to out-wit one another. This narrative is interwoven with a second, parallel story featuring a pair of rival 19th century mesmerists - LaFontaine and Baron Dupotet - and these two intertwined stories ping-pong back and forth off of each other suggesting that we are merely seeing reflections - or reincarnations of ur-archetypes eternally acting out a far older battle for the hearts and minds of human beings. It's a story whose trajectory can theoretically be extropolated back to Biblical times and beyond.
"Vital Fluid" is interlaced w/ all sorts of subtexts about Authoritarian (and, by default, Parental) Control - since hypnosis is a metaphor for controlling people, as well as transforming them. There's plenty o'riffs and meditations on how power can corrupt and become malignant, but I espesh love the way that Tom uses the subtle power of comparison to show this; for every ill-intentioned bad guy there are quiet little moments of warmth and harmony. If "Vital Fluid" was a painting then it'd be a well-balanced composition with light and dark in equal measure; it's a story with a lot of humanity and heart.
Oh, and did I already mention it's funny as fuck? No? Well, it is.
Tom takes pot-shots at mid-west polygamy-cults, the military, the american education system, Mel Gibson...everything, in fact. But he does it with such immaculate smooov style.
I think, for me personally, the story's heart n soul feels like it dwells in that wonderfully bittersweet and surreal section where Phil visits his dad 'Professor Percival', a down-at-heel ventriloquist and his potty-mouthed dummy Shit-Heel. It's laugh-out-loud funny, yet also strangely tender, sour and wincingly awkward: y'know, that strange cough-mixture of conflicting emotions that make us what we are. Two - well, three, if you count the dummy - characters circle each other, never quite getting what they really want from each other.
The book's a terrific read and I totally recommend it. I'm gonna be checking some more of Tom's stuff out soon. I'm thinking of "Lemur" next, or maybe his new Non-Fiction book. Which reminds me...
Recently, da Kid Shirt blog finally caught up with Tom B and asked him a few questions on my behalf (and, hopefully, yours too). And Tom was kind enough to give up some of his vaulable writing time to answer them, for which we thank him...
KS: As I get older I find I'm increasingly curious about the urge to write (or create) in other people, and how it came to be -- y'know, what drives folks to write, beyond the casual 'making a buck' type thing.
Tom: "Some guys find it debilitating to think of themselves as anything more than hacks making a buck. They cringe away from even entertaining the possibility that they could be writing for the ages. If they are capable of producing nothing more than ephemera, it's the right attitude. For them, time is money, and writing comes at a rate-per-word.
"It gets interesting when there's not a buck to be made. Not even a chance to whore oneself. That's when the writers with the most intimate relationship with their muse become identifiable, if only because the hacks drop away in search of gainful employment.
"Time is money--for hacks it's a truism; but for artists it's one of the most horrifying notions expressible in words."
KS: Writing seems to be hardwired in some folks and I wondered if that was true of you?
Tom: "Yeah, hard-wired, or wet-wired. Wired at any rate. Some people are just born with--what? You can't call it a need, any more than drinking and breathing are needs. They are simply conditions of embodied existence. And, for artists, expression of what's inside the consciousness is no less metabolic. I can't imagine how people without that need can live. For them, time, at best, is money. Without exaggeration, I would rather be dead than linger under such conditions.
"But writing is particularly strange. It's easy to posit a dance gene, or a singing gene, or even a painting gene. We've been gyrating and vocalizing and smearing our crap on tree trunks ever since before Ardipithecus ramidus came slouching along. But we've only had the written word for a few thousand years, not long enough deoxyribonucleically to Darwinize writing as an inborn behavior. Nevertheless, there is a certain stage in the work where it starts to feel utterly natural to be tinkering with these little bits of alphabet, like a bonobo tweezing termites with a twig."
KS: I wondered if there was a weird eureka moment in your life when *you* suddenly realised you were a writer?
Tom: "Yeah, I can nail it down to a specific moment. (Here allow me to paraphrase one of my two potted bios.) I received my novelist's calling at the age of nineteen. I climbed into the moonlit mountains around my hometown, where I got an unambiguous vocation with physical symptoms and everything, just like Martin Luther in the electric storm, and I don't recall necessarily being on acid at the time. From that point forward all I ever wanted was time to write. Schopenhauer says time to write is the only thing a writer should feel bad about not getting.
"That is why I fucked permanently off from America in 1985, moved to Red China, and have lurked around the left rim of the Pacific ever since. It's been a search for sinecures that steal virtually no time and absolutely no mental energy from work."
KS: Your comment about written language being around for a relatively short period of time, yet the act writing feeling 'natural' to some of us, rang a bell with me. It got me thinking about how writing - story-telling - evolved from camp-fire hunting tales/legends/myths/boasts into the post-modernist self-referential mass-commodified printed-language beastie we've got now.
Story-telling obviously exploited - still does! - some neurological activity/process in our ancestors' brains - it was a way of passing on knowledge, wisdom, hunting/farming-tips, etc, so I can see why it might have an evolutionary advantage down through the millennia. Stories make us feel good, sad, enlightened, whatever...but some of us feel good *writing* 'em as well as listening to or reading them - passing on a 'part' of ourselves seems almost like a weird biological necessity - it seems to 'complete' us in some way, beyond the obvious ol' attention-seeking, psychological/behavioral strategies...
Tom: "I suspect writing has not evolved from yammering around the campfire. In fact, it follows a diametrically opposite impulse. I think you are right in seeing an evolutionary advantage in the latter. The former transcends the whole question of physical survival.
"The difference between the campfire yarn and writing is the deferral of gratification. A talker gets a reaction as quickly as any mutually lice-picking monkey. For the chanting bard no less than the stand-up comedian, timing is everything, an exquisite awareness of time's passage.
"The writer, on the other hand, in making an artefact, reveals an implicit awareness of time's paradoxical untensefulness. He is making a profession of faith in the illusory nature of cause and effect, which is a huge step in uncovering the procedures of existence--how they don't really proceed at all.
"The writer is not just expelling carbon dioxide and sound waves, but is leaving behind an object that in some microcosmic way recapitulates those unproceeding procedures. What the writer does is less like monkeys grooming in a circle and more like Neanderthals sprinkling their dead with flowers."
KS: You're living in Japan aren't you? How's that working out for you? I was going to ask you about living abroad - so, it's mostly about finding somewhere to live that's both interesting to you and also fairly cheap to live, so that you can spend more time writing?
Tom: "Actually, Japan is the most expensive and least interesting country in the world, and I have passed more than half my earthly existence here.
"No matter how cheap it is, you don't want to live in an interesting place, such as China, Mexico, Morocco--or much of Southern Europe for that matter. In those places, every time you step out into the street you're squandering the budget of intellectual and emotional vigor that needs squirreling away for literary work. I wrote hardly a word living in interesting countries. This is not a problem in a sink of vapid nothingness like Hirohito Land.
"The requirements are as follows: you must be able to snag onto food and shelter in return for doing absolutely nothing (that means, of course, university teaching), and meanwhile you must not have perpetual diarrhoea. The second clause leaves out China and Mexico and Morocco. I'm not a trained physician, but my instincts tell me that stools loosened over decades can't bode well for the general physique."
KS: I was wondering what kind of writer you thought you might be. What's your bag? Do you feel yourself to be part of a writing lineage or tradition? If so, who might your fellow travellers be....?
Tom: "The banished: Ovid, Saint John of Patmos, Juvenal, Nabokov. Like the first and last names on that roster, I will die far away from home. Unlike them, I don't give a fuck."
KS: Are you a satirist, a moralist, a fantabulist...or would you rather not be pigeon-holed and genre-tagged?
Tom: "I do all the above in all my books, simultaneously, whether the publisher decides to call them novels, nonfiction, or--coming soon--poetry."
KS: Okay, I have to ask - why a hypnovel? What triggered your interest in hypnosis, mesmerism, etc?
Tom: "I discovered the writing of John-Ivan Palmer, suddenly realized that he was my favorite living author--and only then found out that he also happens to be the top stage hypnotist in America. Vital Fluid is based on his writings, stage performances and amazing life.
"His novel about male strippers, "Motels of Burning Madness", is about to be published by The Drill Press, who have just brought out my latest volume of nonfiction, "Put It Down in a Book".
"What I find fascinating about John-Ivan Palmer is that, as a fine writer, he is able to enter people's minds and have his way, and he's also an expert at doing something similar in the flesh, on stage."
KS: I wondered if [one of the themes of "Vital Fluid"] had anything to do with the idea of hypnosis being a metaphor for exerting control over people...I'm interested in the idea that some folks willingly allow themselves to be used as 'puppets' - ie only a certain percent of people who get up on stage are 'really' hypnotised - some fake it and go along for the ride. They seem to like being told what to do. (That seems to work as a metaphor for society in general).
Tom: "I've asked John-Ivan Palmer about people who fake it onstage, and he says the delineation between that and genuine hypnotic trance is much blurrier than most of us suppose. He says lots of people go around in a state of mesmerization most of the time. When your attention is fully captured, by a book, a passing girl's ass, a car wreck, that's hypnosis. A moment ago I was listening to Lennie Tristano, and if he was using me as a puppet, I'll gladly answer to the name of Clem Kadiddlehopper."
KS: I couldn't help noticing that some of the characters behaved differently - more like human beings - when they switched off the TV, stopped listening to their boomboxes, etc (ie disconnected from the mediasphere/Spectacle) - ie they ceased to be 'hypnotised' or programmed by what passes for mainstream pop-culture these days.
Tom: "Well, when people switch off their electronic stuff, they start to act more like nice human beings, or asshole human beings, depending upon which flesh and blood hypnotist in the book they are entranced by. "Vital Fluid" has two: Phil Deacon and Simon Magus, protagonist and antagonist.
"Both Phil and Simon dream of a cessation of all electronic competition, a power-outage, a shutdown of television, radio, movies, internet. That would give them the sort of even playing field enjoyed by their professional forbears in the golden age of mesmerism: the two nineteenth-century Frenchmen, LaFontaine and Dupotet, actual historical figures whose careers we also follow."
KS: I loved the multi-layered approach you took - the parallel 19th century backstory that floated under the main/surface narrative - it felt like a hypnotic regression session - as if we were seeing dream-like glimpses of the protagonist's past lives, though it worked equally as a comedy-of-manners or a narrative harlequinade - a sort of 'procession' of variants of the same characters, if you know what I mean. Then floating under it all was an echo of an original Ur-Story or conflict that was suggested by the Biblical names and references - Simon Magus, Philip, the Samarians, etc. You seem to be making allusions to Gnosticism here, of an older struggle for control of the Word of God - Christianity itself being a heirarchical control system, a way of keeping the masses under control. So you have a more benign (or humanistic) way of passing on wisdom vs a more authoritarian or de-humanising control system. So, there seem to be lots of threads in the book about how power can corrupt or twist the powerful when they lose sight of their own humanity...but all done with some devilishly surreal laugh-out-loud humour and a keen eye for character..
I'm guessing your choice of name for the main protagonist - Phil *Deacon* was deliberate. A "servant" or "messenger"....? Also the name reminded me of Philip K Dick - there's a bit of the PKDickian 'everyman' about him too - the basically-decent guy who sometimes gets it wrong or fucks up, but tries his hardest to do the right thing despite circumstances that are often weird or overwhelming ....
That chapter with his father, the ventriloquist, was fabulous, I thought - extremely funny, but kinda sour/sad at the same time... in the end he just wanted his dad's approval, but never really got it...
Tom: "In "Valis", when Philip K. Dick found himself suddenly transported to New Testament Syria, he must have run into his namesake, Philip the Deacon. "Vital Fluid" reverses the time flow, and brings the first Philip to the twenty-first century, along with his transmigrationally entangled nemesis, Simon Magus. It's the story of the metempsychotically entangled souls of these figures, who appear in the Acts of the Apostles. Simon Magus is also a key presence in lots of apocryphal and gnostic texts. Lafontaine is Philip reincarnate, and Dupotet is Simon Magus incarnate.
"I am writing with the assumption that they were not only actual reincarnations, but that the three pairs of daily lives were replaying in an eternal double loop. At the moment, for example, when Phil and Simon are dealing with the little cadet boys at the polygamist party, LaFontaine and Dupotet are being confronted by the pederast pope's delicious altar boys. When the building in LA is being blown up, Dupotet is discharging his pistol in the old whore's ear.
"The scenes, as they shift from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century, parallel each other in all but the details. The moral essence of each interwoven pair of episodes is identical, because, as metempsychotically entangled spirits, their work is moral in nature, as is the the conflict between them. Hypnosis is less important in this "hypnovel" than the double doctrine of karma-rebirth."
KS: Speaking of metempsychotic entanglement, is there any past-life soul that you think you might be metempsychotically entangled with (versus one that you'd like to be entangled with)?
Tom: "I don't think about it that specifically, except as an organizing device in fiction. You will note that the words "karma" and "rebirth" are not mentioned in Vital Fluid.
"No need to carry a biochipped Buddhist Sympathizer card and get concerned about "past lives." Just try this notion as a working hypothesis: your vitality is such that it extends beyond a single existence. Not your personality per se, but the essential existent underlying and motivating you, gets more than one crack at this so-called "being" rigmarole.
"In order for the whole double doctrine of karma and rebirth to have any grandeur at all, the personality, what we call "us" must decay alongside the body, and any specific memory thereof. That begs the question: what is transmitted from body to body? Not specific knowledge or skills, of course. What's already there at birth? Basic intelligence, temperament, and so on.
"You can get a notion by wandering through a supermarket at a time of day when lots of young mothers have brought their babies. Some are wiggling and writhing, conscious of little beyond their own confining skin. Others concentrate on which items they can yank off the shelves. Still others stare at the passing people with fear or fascination or amusement. There are ones that look into your eyes and seem to know more about what's in your head than you do; and a very few others who use your eyes as windows to something unimaginable. It seems obvious these little creatures have just arrived from a wide variety of previous circumstances, entangled or otherwise."
KS: Tom, what else have you got on the boil that we should check out pronto or keep our antennae out for?
Tom: "Well, my latest books are Vital Fluid, Even the Dog Won't Touch Me, and Hemorrhaging Slave of an Obese Eunuch, which is being brought out in your own fantastic country by Dog Horn Publishing.
I am presently collaborating on a graphic ekphrasis in verse and an illustrated novel with artists David Aronson and Nick Patterson respectively, both to be published by Crossing Chaos Enigmatic Ink. And, at Burning Man this summer, Unlikely Books will launch a nonfiction flip book which I am sharing with Deb Hoag. My half is called "My Hands Were Clean", and Deb's is "Dr. Gonzo". You can order [books] direct from most of these publishers' sites.
Further curiosity can be indulged at http://www.tombradley.org and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Bradley_(author)."
KS: Thanks, Tom!