Review of Helen Chau Bradley’s “Personal Attention Roleplay” (Corey Qureshi)

Modern life makes many demands, pulling us multiple directions at any given moment. In Helen Chau Bradley’s debut collection of short fiction Personal Attention Roleplay, the stories walk their readers through a few present day problems, obsessions, and dynamics. 

Family is very present. Mother-daughter relationships are significant, often acknowledged even when they aren’t present in the form of internalized expectations. The pre-pubescent narrator of “Maverick” has nearly all her decisions made for her by her mom, while the mother in “Sheila” struggles to impose a love for piano lessons on a kid more concerned with becoming a Youtube star.

In other pieces, people seem intentionally estranged from family. Siblings and cousins are forced to interact, at odds because of vastly different personalities. Internal monologues mock and feel tender for one another from bus commutes to expeditions through Spanish mountain ranges. 

Estrangement and how it’s navigated is a main concern of the collection as a whole. 

You could argue that a good portion of the otherednesses are rooted in being queer. One of the characters in “Finisterre” is sent away for the summer by her parents in hopes of suppressing and undoing the fact that she came out to them. Weird perverts and inherent heteronormativity in punk spaces are issues familiar to a queer metal band of various genders in “Soft Shoulder”. 

Along with queer stuff, race and politics are points of contention. Like Chau Bradley themself, the protagonists are mainly Asian-Canadians, often subjected to racist microagressions from white descendants of settlers. Racialized self-loathing and insecurities around speaking French create uncomfortable interactions/dynamics. Bike delivery and temping jobs call attention to often unsustainable work people are forced to take on under late-stage capitalism. Anarchist protests happen and anti-Trump (read: anti-fascist) sentiments are expressed. The aforementioned “Soft Shoulder” delves a bit into ways abusers are/aren’t held accountable in DIY communities.

Narrators speak from socially isolated perspectives, slightly warped in their approaches to interaction. In “Personal Attention Roleplay”, a tender second-person subject spirals after alienating a close friend. The dramatic extent of this unwinding brings the story to a surreal, ASMR video-obsessed close, leaving questions. Along with the titular story, a few other pieces leave one unsettled and/or with questions, treading the line of fantasy, tweaking an otherwise mainly straightforward, realistic storytelling style in exciting ways. 

On the other hand, Helen Chau Bradley’s realism is detailed, yet uncomplicated. The scope of pieces vary in setting and topics. Scenarios unfold naturally, muted almost, with surprising turns. The book uses one of my favorite forms: a story told entirely in conversation. While the narratives explore some unique moments and identities, at times the pacing drags. The longer stories are pretty digressive, and you sometimes lose sight of what’s intended. That said, all of the stories are unpredictable in their specificities, propelling readers forward out of curiosity.

Personal Attention Roleplay is a collection portraying the present ways that don’t fetishize newness like many current forms of media. It deals in histories, with their negatives and positives, and ways people move through life handling them. Here’s to hoping the future gets easier, but not any less beautiful!

Personal Attention Roleplay by Helen Chau Bradley is available from Metonymy Press.

Corey Qureshi is a writer, musician, and parent based in Philadelphia. Their writing has been published in Artblog, the tiny, Wax Nine, and Occulum Journal, among others. Find more @q_boxo.