Neil and Other Stories (WhiskeyTit, 2018) is the sharp edge of a bed frame, jutting out in the dark. It jabs into your shin, and the feeling bruises, lingers. But this time, strangely enough, you’re kind of glad it happened.
“My shadow points at my stomach, giggles at its oblong shape.”
Twenty-five different stories make up the first sixty-five pages of this stellar microfiction collection by J. Bradley. The author thrusts us into the lives of everyday individuals with ease, illustrating their pains in realistic situations and guiding them toward change and contemplation—nearly all within 300 words.
And lucky for IBR, this collection is also styled with just the right amount of strange. The structure of Bradley’s “Job Aid” stories fit that unique mold the best:
Imagine that you’ve just started a job. You walk over to your new desk, and there’s instructions waiting on top, formatted like a daily lesson plan. The paper introduces your issue and how to solve it, like “How to Survive an EELE.” An EELE, which Bradley describes, is an acronym for an “emotional extinction level event,” and defined as “an internalized rapid decrease in the amount of positive emotions.” In other words, super sadness. But instead of just giving us advice on how to conquer these EELEs, Bradley tells a full story about the creator of the “Job Aid” sheet, whoever had left it behind, without ever curating a single scene. There are maybe four “Job Aid” stories like this in the collection, and we truly were gripping for more.
The largest portion of this collection is “Neil, a novella-in-flash.” For those unfamiliar with the form, a novella-in-flash is one long narrative similar to a traditional novella, except each chapter tells its own complete story in under 1,000 words. In Bradley’s case, the “Neil” novella tells the story of Neil’s dad, an unnamed narrator, struggling with his instincts to act like his own problematic father. The narrator shows continued glimpses of parental insensitivity, even though he doesn’t want to, but he just can’t shake what had been instilled in him from his upbringing. It results in a complicated character battling with an intriguing, relatable issue.
“Good parenting is always thinking about what you can eventually leverage against your children.”
Bradley’s ability to flashback to the narrator’s experiences with own father, while telling the main story of taking care of Neil, is exceptional—especially when you consider he does it in around 200 words. The backstory acts more like a side narrative than a subplot in each tale, influencing the narrator’s present-day decisions and creating a character we can both relate to and root for. Masterful. Truly.
Bradley concludes his book with “Neil, a novella in theatre.” While the screenplay form does provide an interesting new perspective on the main character’s life, it does retell the same “Neil…” story a bit. We are sure there is some added purpose in retelling the story, but we did want to reach for just a bit more clarity on it.
In the end, this collection proved thoroughly enjoyable. It provides a fast and unique experience, and for those looking for insight and impactful imagery in about two minutes per story, we would highly recommend you get to reading.