As a depiction of a long-distance relationship, Bill Callahan’s first novel, Letters To Emma Bowlcut, is unconvincing, to say the least. Classified by Callahan as an “epistolary novelette,” his book is an odd duck, even within the diverse, irregular taxonomy of literature. Comprised of the correspondence between a nameless scientist-cum-boxing enthusiast and the eponymous Ms. Bowlcut, Callahan narrows the novel’s frame even further, limiting the reader’s perspective to allow access to only the masculine half of the written conversation. While Callahan captures the urges and desires that drive long-distance relationships and the breathless excitement that comes with the arrival of each new letter, he proves less adept at conveying the ebb and flow of these types of exchanges, while the arcane details that color in the margins of these letters feel inaccurate, too impulsive, too idiosyncratic to be the result of a written conversation.
Information about Emma is doled out in small portions; as it stands, we are privy only to the protagonist’s replies. Although not necessarily unreliable, the anonymous narrator is unpredictable, as well as largely implausible. The sci-fi trappings of the novel make implausibility a weak criticism to lay at Callahan’s feet, but the vagueness of the characterizations and the lack of synthesis between the disparate stylistic elements are fatal flaws, regardless of genre or structural classification.
Letters To Emma Bowlcut is not a work that invites close scrutiny; its weirdness, a quality central to the novel, is a meager but eventually palatable bounty. Vagueness and the lack of coherence is perhaps the purpose of the book. Callahan has mentioned the sources of his inspiration in interviews. The leitmotif, Callahan’s interest in boxing, resulted from a thwarted fight between the author and his friend. The admiration of the grace and beauty of physical conflict, particularly as a reflection of our emotional lives and urges, can be discerned within the rangy meat of the text, but it does not account for the breadth of thematic pre-occupation. The Vortex, a perplexing, unexplained figure within the story, serves as a handy metaphor for the ever-expanding vacuity of modern life. Callahan is not without literary precedent in the field of metaphysical, science fiction hybrids. The Vortex is a sibling to Jonathan Lethem’s Lack, an unexplained, physically, and thematically pronounced non-entity, a presence that marks an absence.
Near the opening of the novel, the unnamed author of these letters expresses his need for human connection in conjunction with his inability to articulate that need: “You have every right to ask me what I do, but I don’t think there’s a name for it. I study the Vortex… Such work has divorced me from so much and yet I undergo it with the exact opposite in mind. I am hoping that you are the missing think thing.” The emptiness of his expression — and Callahan’s, by extension — is directly linked to the Vortex, to Letters To Emma Bowlcut’s motifs, to the protagonist’s desire for emotional enrichment and meaning; there are layers to the text, but they are as imprecise and indistinct as the narrator’s voice.
Despite some positive changes brought by this budding correspondence, the narrator inches closer to the Vortex as the novelette progresses. Similarly, Callahan’s diction becomes more specific; he peppers the writing with anecdotes and observations, about Korean grocery displays and Judean desert wildlife. Some of these strange digressions are clearly relevant, but the meanings of the majority remain obtuse, beyond the slippery grip of comprehension. Callahan returns, repeatedly, to the idea that violence is a form of love, that we fight in order to come closer to one another. That there is little conflict between the main character and the object of his affection — other than small hints of tension, intermittent periods sans communication — might be a deliberate indication of a lack of love; the narrator describes a disappointing boxing match, telling Emma that “[he] spent last night sifting through a ten-round snoozer. The one feller who’s [sic] forte was fighting on the outside, the other who’s [sic] forte was on the inside. Neither of them throwing anything. Even the tolerant ref wanted it to end.” Pain is a stronger feeling than apathy, and is, in a certain way, a commitment to the present. These characters’ reluctance to terminate their relationship could a parallel to that pugilistic dalliance, a prelude to a courtship that is unlikely to ever occur. Then again, maybe these interpretations fail to explain the plot, let alone its deeper meaning. Letters To Emma Bowlcut, despite the ease with which its words move, is essentially inscrutable. Callahan’s prose bobs and weaves, but it rarely dances. The fragmented style prevents the parts from forming a greater whole. Anything in the text can mean virtually anything. These letters are themselves a vortex, an abyss; the longer we stare into it, the more likely it is to look back.
Depending on your expectations, Callahan’s might be a satisfying literary technique. It wears its strangeness as a mark of honor, and its off-kilter humor will please a very specific crowd. For loyal fans of Callahan’s work, the insular, isolating tone, the digressions, tangents and unconventional lyricism will be instantly familiar. There are callbacks to some of Callahan’s music, most prominently a section from which the title of his last studio album was derived. The book succeeds as smoggy bit of rock ‘n’ roll ephemera, without need for qualification. Other songwriters have tried their hands at literature — Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave, for example — with no more and no less a measure of success. Released through Drag City, Letters To Emma Bowlcut is a curiosity, a minor work with limited, but built-in appeal.
By the end of the novel, the protagonist has crossed over to the other side. This is hardly a spoiler, more a convention of literature: of what relevance is a Vortex, if no one ever descends into it? This thin sketch of a character finds what he is looking for, while we, the audience, are left puzzling over the greater meaning, the form which these fragments together take. If Callahan is correct in his belief that fighting is a close kin to loving, then the struggle for the comprehension of this slight tome is itself a form of affection. At the very least, this struggle means that I have been affected by this book, no matter what my actual feelings might prove to be.