Fission Among the Fanatics
by John-Ivan Palmer
From his expat lair in Kitakyushu, Japan, banished satirist and college professor Tom Bradley strikes again. His sixth book, Fission Among the Fanatics, is his most devastating assault yet on conformity culture, academic politics, religion, literary pretension and the all around follies of humankind.
The ten chapters of Fission Among the Fanatics are drawn from wacko clashes in locales ranging from Utah to China to Japan. Reading these searing personal essays, it doesn't take long to see why the phrase "formerly of" seems to attach itself naturally to every line of Dr Bradley's academic résumé.
With a knack for combining colorful argot with a learned style full of historical and philosophical references, he weaves it all into scenes of low buffoonery and deep subtext. What results is a bizarre point of view, full of odd insights.
One of the early chapters describes the time a famous unnamed writer (EL Doctorow, I have it on good authority) comes to Bradley's Utah university (downwind from a nuclear hot zone) and conducts a writer's workshop. Bradley shows up with a psychopathic Vietnam vet carrying an ungrammatical memoir. Both are high on peyote from the Shivwit Indian tribe. The workshop is hilariously described, with snide reference to the "reptilian appeal" of best sellers, grant recipients who "hold forth for holding forth's own sake," and poets "exuding earnest inarticulateness." On one level this essay-as-slapstick exposes the pretensions of contemporary writing, while on another level the story bumbles to a climax with the Vietnam vet setting fire to a dictionary in front of the famous author and being removed by campus police. After that, Bradley writes, "The English Department never treated me the same."
So the author, with his PhD, leaves Utah and ends up in a seedy town in provincial China, living over a brothel in a hotel for segregated foreigners. His window provides him a view of people "hauling drinking water and sewage to and from a central pit, and slaughtering little black dogs for a month of soups." Between Pope jokes and Mao-bashing punch lines, Bradley regales you with endless details on China's all-plastic automobiles, the hustling of loquats and lychees, illegal Catholic churches disguised as fish markets, and the burial rites of a secretive matriarchal ethnic group known as the Lolos.
When Bradley starts his own writers workshop at "a 10th rate university in the frozen industrial wastes of remote northeast [China]," the humor gets very black. As he teaches his students the Western Canon, you see how the fragile seeds of creativity and intellectual curiosity begin to grow. Then there's Tiananmen Square.
Bradley gives a grisly description of the nuances of Chinese political executions, where the aiming of the bullet is determined by what human organs happen to be most in demand that day. When the authorities order Bradley to turn over his student's essays for assessment of political correctness, he weighs the risk of ending up in the Qingui forced labor camp for refusing. He refuses.
But lives to tell about it, and one more "formerly of" goes on his curriculum vitae. He writes that the repressive atmosphere of China is where he comes to know what real teaching is, with students who really want to learn. "Walking out of China you feel shot full of methedrine, and your students are likely to be shot full of lead."
His final place of refuge is Japan, where the literary virtuoso descends to the level of "TEFL trash" (teacher of English as foreign language) at a dental school. He becomes an over-qualified member of a large worldwide subgroup of sleazy knowledge workers, many of whom are Bradley's cult readers. His classes now consist of "100 narcoleptic zombies."
Bradley's snidest satire is aimed at the country where he has lived for the past 20 years. When he says, "Japan has sold whatever scab of a soul they had for a shopping spree," you know he's going for the gizzard. "An ignorant and incurious populace is a basic requirement for Japanese society, and the educational system couldn't be better designed to serve such ends." Hilarious scenes ensue, with trademark Bradley digressions on everything from ancient history, publishing technology, nuclear disaster, Mormon fundamentalism and obscenity, both creative and otherwise. A kind of anti-Lafcadio Hearn, Bradley deconstructs the Japanese education system, imperial rule, and ethnic non-consciousness with the precision of a fugu chef excising the poison glands of a blowfish.
There's plenty in Tom Bradley's writings to offend just about everyone. It takes a twisted sense of humor to appreciate this lunatic scholar, degenerate Harold Bloom, and biblical madman. Whether you think he goes too far depends on how many taboos are packed in your baggage. But although he criticizes and satirizes without surcease, he professes no superiority of any one thing over another, except for the classic faculties of observation and reason. In the end, his values are solidly humanitarian.
And the author himself is not exempted. One long chapter is an autobiography disguised as a biography in which "the unchainable lunatic who cries at night" is mercilessly ridiculed by a putative journalist in a thicket of digressions that range from Israeli LSD vendors in Nagasaki, to the Root Tone of nature (F above middle C).
Bradley's recondite asides sometimes make you stop, so your mind can catch up to their resonating significance. But therein he exposes his greatest vulnerability, which is the tendency to "libel a whole race, religion, ethnicity, tribal affiliation... if it makes for a nice transition between paragraphs." It's a tendency that baits his higher themes like gravity to a wire-walker.
And so it is that the best satirists always seem to fall from their high perspective. Why else would Juvenal and Ovid end up banished to remote wastelands, Voltaire chased out of France, Salman Rushdie driven underground, and Tom Bradley forced into lonely exile on the island of Kyushu? Why would the author of Fission Among the Fanatics be targeted for assassination by "Yakuza hireling-thugs of Hirohito-worshipping extreme rightists," not to mention threats from the clergy he skewers as "hubris-bloated tyrants?"
Maybe it's because he's doing something right.