REVIEW: Randy Bradley by Jake Bohstedt Morrill
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
It would be easy to dismiss Jake Bohstedt Morrill’s Randy Bradley. A 40-page epistolary novella, Randy Bradley can be read in a single sitting, the reader arriving at the last page before even realizing it. Presented as a letter from a well-meaning but deranged woman named Lucy to her brother-in-law Richard, the text alternates between inspired mania and misguided vulnerability. It would seem that after years of strange behavior on her annual summer visits, Lucy has been summarily banned from her sister Miriam’s home. What follows in Lucy’s letter to Richard are a series of charmingly alarming evasions and justifications for what has truly been happening during stays as a houseguest. Seeing Lucy fall down this rabbit hole of her own making, the reader could be forgiven for mistaking this piece for a rambling character study. But underestimating either Lucy or Jake Bohstedt Morrill would be a grave error — Lucy’s cheerful dementia is merely the facade for the much larger questions that Morrill means to pose. As slight as it may seem on its surface, dig a little deeper and Randy Bradley reveals itself to be a philosophical treatise packaged so sweetly and deftly that one hardly notices when it slyly shifts towards becoming a case study in Wittgenstein’s private language argument. In the end, Lucy resembles no one so much as Charles Kinbote, part of that unique category of the mentally ill whose methods surpass their madness.
Randy Bradley is, to my mind, the most entertaining demonstration of what Wittgenstein meant in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus when he wrote that, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” (Or, at least what the most entertaining demonstration of what I think Wittgenstein meant by that. Articulating Wittgenstein’s thought is notoriously like trying to nail jelly to a wall.) As it turns out, the story (and Lucy’s behavior) hinges on an ingenious word-game of Lucy’s own making, one deviously complex in its simplicity. To reveal the rules or the purpose of the game would be to give too much away, but imagine, as Lucy urges Richard and the reader, placing a jar over an insect in order to prevent conflict between the insect and a human antagonist. Now suppose what it would mean if the jar could be placed so deftly that the insect can be contained (and protected) without ever realizing that its world has been restricted. This “embalming effect” is — in a very roundabout way — what Lucy has been doing all along.
But lest this sound too much like an undergraduate bull session, it’s important to empathize that Morrill is not strictly writing about philosophy, his true aim is more in exploring the real-life consequences of these ideas. While Lucy may seem eccentric or harmless, her intentions turn out to be deathly serious. (At least to her.) The game Lucy is playing isn’t simply a game; it is a deception, a labyrinth in which to trap a Minotaur that must not be spoken of. Lucy teeters on the edge of meaning and discovery, the semiotics of her private universe in perpetual danger of being revealed. And were her methods ever to be known — should Lucy’s reluctant co-players, Miriam and Richard, ever uncover the secret of Lucy’s games and speak the name “Randy Bradley” — the fallout would, to Lucy’s fragile yet agile mind, plunge all three of them into a domestic crisis that could undo the fabric of her sister’s marriage. And so, Lucy must be misunderstood. No one can ever know that Lucy is playing a game with discernible rules and goals. And that is the true tragedy here: this necessary misunderstanding — perpetuated for the sake of domestic tranquility — inevitably leaves Lucy isolated and alone, a pariah to her own sister.
In one sense, Jake Bohstedt Morrill is working within the vanguard of an increasingly vogue school of fiction intensely focused on the architecture and sound of the sentence. Randy Bradley offers small, concise lessons in the craftsmanship of sentences: each of Lucy’s declarations is painstakingly formed and her word-game focuses the reader’s attentions upon the smallest subtleties of how words are formed. But at the same time, Randy Bradley feels like a commentary on that type of prose as well. It highlights not only the malleability of language, but also its potential malfunctions. As this gymnastic minimalism continues to gain steam (and esteem), Randy Bradley demonstrates the pitfalls of such writing. This hyper-sensitivity to words and sounds, syllables and vowels, promises new vistas, but it also has the power to alienate and confuse. Language may be the medium, but it’s also the message; we play with it at our own peril.
–Stephen Aubrey is a writer and dramaturg. He can be found here.