| Book Reviews

Bradley Bazzle Writes Unique Fiction With Familiar Skin in New Collection

Tim Johnson

Bradley Bazzle describes his new fiction collection, Fathers of Cambodian Time-Travel Science, as an “alchemical mixture of realism and complete bullshit.” As I read it, I decided I wouldn’t be able to come up with a more apt description than that. Some of the stories are unquestionably in our world—or at least a world that is familiar to us. Others are clearly speculative in nature. However, perhaps the greatest trick Fathers of Cambodian Time-Travel Science plays is in leaving the precise nature of these fictional worlds in question. Certainty in a conventional sense isn’t something Bazzle often provides in these pages, but he uses that to achieve great wonder and intrigue.

In some ways, these stories edge around expectations of contemporary classicism and the corporate and capitalistic framework of western culture, glancing at these concepts in the periphery or using a purposely out-of-focus lens. In each piece, Bazzle pushes the unexpected, striving for something new and unique, reaching for innovation within the guts of his fiction. In form and aesthetic, Bazzle’s presentation is familiar and comfortable; however, the innards of his storytelling—the core and heart, the thing you find when you dig down deep—contain these pieces’ identities. The effect is that these stories read easily, but Bazzle is challenging you as the reader to crack the surface, to slow down, to close the book and take the story with you, let it percolate for a time before returning for the next tale. 

On this note, I fear some readers, caught up in our current culture of reading for achievement—to add as many titles to the Goodreads shelf as possible—may miss the true splendor and enjoyment of this collection, which deserves time and consideration. More than any collection in recent memory, I found each story in Fathers of Cambodian Time-Travel Science demanded to be read and then contemplated before moving on to the next entry. At 185 pages, it is tempting to chew through it in a day or two, but Bazzle’s writing is best savored.

At the sentence level, Bazzle’s writing is more cerebral than dramatic, more precise than verbose. His style isn’t the kind to go straight for your heart but to first pinball around in your brain. It is driven by quirky characters, worlds made weird by those characters’ perceptions. Bazzle writes characters that are both in awe of their world and perplexed by it, a combination that leads to eccentricity in the best or insanity in the worst, but always, Bazzle takes full advantage of that paradigm.

Zooming out and looking at the collection from orbit, there is a wealth of human experience. We go from the 16th century with a translator aboard Magellan’s ship to a not-too-distant dystopian future in which a truck driver must guide a simulacrum of Ben Franklin to his next speaking gig. We visit the set of a 1960s sci-fi film as a legendary actor must coach the star to save the project, and he’s either really into method acting or insane. A real estate agent must resort to considering a sale to a pornography mogul while questioning if his eccentric uncle is actually a version of himself from the future. A young splatter-horror screenwriter looking for her big break must confront a legendary director who is clearly on his way out.

As throughlines go, these pieces are connected by character experience. Bazzle frequently writes about characters seemingly in control of or adapted to their world in which the rules are defined and routines are set. In reality, there might be no surprises for these people, but in Bazzle’s hands, their lives twist with something unexpected, something that shakes them from the neat and orderly. 

My favorite piece is the title story, a novella capping off the collection. In it, a middle-aged designer working in marketing gets his chance to prove himself with a client who may or may not have invented a time portal that allows the user to speak to their young self…for a fee, of course. That pitch doesn’t do it justice, however, because there really is more going on here, including the role ambition plays in our professional lives, how we define satisfaction, and the nature of belief even when we’ve seen behind the curtain. Many of these stories operate with an intriguing tension in which we’re given the perspective of a character who is in a position to see through the wool, whatever incantation that might be. These are characters with access to the inner workings of whatever phenomena Bazzle is writing about in each piece, and part of this fiction’s engine seems to be curiosity cutting through the disillusionment, a renewed and reinvigorated fascination with a familiar world.

Ultimately, I had fun with this collection. Every piece within it presented me something new and unique, narratives to take pleasure in and ideas to ponder for a time thereafter. That is, I think, the true measure of Fathers of Cambodian Time-Travel Science’s success. It is enjoyable and compelling in the moment, and it is memorable afterwards. In this collection, Bradley Bazzle has assembled such a cohesive collection of stories and experiences that, should the book find a home on your shelf, it is sure to be unlike anything else you’ve read.

Bradley Bazzle

is the author of the story collection Fathers of Cambodian Time-Travel Science (C&R Press, 2020) and the novel Trash Mountain (Red Hen, 2018). In addition to phoebe (41.2, “The Case Against Dr. Smetana”), his short stories appear in The Missouri Review, The Iowa Review, New England Review, Epoch, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and daughter in Athens, Georgia. Find him at http://bradleybazzle.com.

Timothy Johnson

is managing editor for phoebe and an MFA candidate at George Mason University’s creative writing program. He lives and writes from outside Washington, D.C. Tweet at him @tim_the_writer. He will be delighted.

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