BOOK REVIEW / A finger in every cosmic pie: Eva Salzman on Scott Bradfield, whose new short stories display a wonderfully perverse charm - 'Greetings from Earth' - Scott Bradfield: Picador, 14.99 pounds

IN DR Simonson's West Coast office-come-guest room, original Dalis, Braques and Chagalls co-habit with a Marvel comics collection. This is the Land of the Fruitcakes. This is World Headquarters for the Captain Kirk School of Cosmology. This is California - where else? - and Scott Bradfield's territory in his book of short stories - Greetings From Earth. Laugh if you dare, but there's some fairly deep philosophising going on.

Bradfield's comedy can be very sad and serious. In 'The Wind Box', Dr Simonson, in one of many spiritual assaults on the poor David, confides that he too is slightly imperfect: 'You probably don't believe this, David, but I have felt great anger and resentment in my life too. I have felt tremendously violent hatred against the world, have desired terrible retributions for the many cruel crimes committed against me . . . Just a week ago, for instance, the Internal Revenue Service froze my corporate accounts.'

In 'The Darling', the reader is forced to do a double-take, as incest and murder fly by within the first few throwaway sentences. Obvious responses are always discouraged; in 'Hey Hey Hey', Sarah moves to her mother's with her nine-year-old son, Raymond, after her boyfriend tries to 'stab her to death with a plastic fork'. Raymond tells his mother: 'Sometimes I worry about you, Sarah . . . Why don't you try calling Charlie and talking things over with him for just two minutes? We can't stay with Grandma forever, you know.' Meanwhile, Grandma is off to a retreat to contact the 'Cosmic Ether'.

Although the plethora of weird and wonderful similes occasionally threaten the stability of Bradfield's prose, mostly the added punch of poetry and the titanic leaps of narrative tone are funny and imaginative, like the elderly woman on a bus 'gazing vacantly . . . as if trying to remember something that had happened to her over thirty million years ago'. The Earth and the Universe get a regular look-in, mainly via the table talk of the gaggle of shrinks, counsellors and spiritual guides crowding the pages.

It's only a matter of time before somebody (Dr Simonson, actually) says: 'Earthquakes are very important psychic occurrences, you know . . . Earthquakes help the world breathe. They adjust the world's psychic energy so everything can flow smoothly again through our eternal minds.' These are guys with a finger in every cosmic pie.

The style of writing has a twisted, perverse charm, with its dead-pan jumps from mega-space to brand names - the Milk Duds, the Big Gulp containers, the Hefty bags, the Reese's Peanut Butter cups all appear, shibboleths of the American junk culture. Every joke is marvellously sustained. Here is the first entry from 'Diary of a Forgotten Transcendentalist', a wicked parody of those who seek peace in the wilderness: 'Oh it was a beautiful day in the woods today. A really, really beautiful day. I really mean it. It was probably one of the nicest days I remember.' In other stories, lo, the animals talk, and, lo, they're as existentially bored as anyone.

Bradfield is a wild card, the Raymond Carver of the crystal-healing set. His sense of humour mischievously unpicks the seam of seriousness which runs throughout, though some of the stories remain dark and disturbing. This is one writer with a huge reality problem, for which we should be grateful.

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