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Fiction From Bill Callahan: Letters To Emma Bowlcut

By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 13, 2010 3:00PM

2010_08_callahan.jpg If you are a fan of Bill Callahan or (as he was known back when he was a Chicagoan) Smog, here's a little game. Try reading the opening sentences of his new book, Letters to Emma Bowlcut, and not hear his woody baritone:

The world had gone quiet around me. The deafness fell like a heavy snow. Slow and steady. Since then I have been waiting for the crunch of footsteps to join me. Using my senses in an unconscious way. And I always hold a silver micrometer (rhymes with thermometer). If I've had enough to drink, it gets dropped in a pocket. Then a little more to drink and out it comes again.

I heard those footsteps. I turned my head and you were there. At that party. I was the one who's date was a micrometer.

If you don't hear that same dispassionate, caustically observational voice that's been popping up on records of increasing sonic fidelity for 20 years now, Callahan's first foray onto the printed page is probably not for you. Letters to Emma Bowlcut is a slim epistolary novel published last month by Drag City, which earlier put out some of Callahan's drawings and sketchbooks in addition to a sizeable stack of records.

The novel consists of the letters of an unnamed protagonist, a scientist who claims to "study the vortex" but who seems more interested in the "the sweet science" of boxing, to the woman he becomes enamored of while at a party. We learn little of this Emma (whose replies are absent) and what we find out about the narrator is introduced as much through feints and dodges as through revelation. The letters seem to chronicle their sender's long-distance courtship of the object of his affection while conveying his own sense of self-deterioration.

As a literary experiment in its own right, Letters to Emma Bowlcut finds some success. As in the best of Callahan's work, there is flinty poetry, an elegiac tone and not a little philosophy in the observations and in the chronicles of the protagonist's progress through extremes of loneliness and desire. The minimalism of the work's style, the abbreviation of its form and its narrator's natural evasiveness conspire to ensure the work as a whole remains vague, perhaps frustratingly so. Each letter taken by itself dazzles in its own little firmament, but bound together they do not enlighten us the way a thoughtfully created universe should. The protagonist might chalk this up to the mysterious "vortex."

For those with an interest in Callahan's music, do not hesitate to get your hands on a copy of Letters to Emma Bowlcut, if only to tide you over until the next album, but we would endorse this book for anyone with a taste for offbeat and obliquely told tales.

Letters to Emma Bowlcut is available for $12 from Drag City.