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Letters to Emma Bowlcut

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Sixty-two letters from a nameless protagonist comprise this epistolary novel. He writes them to Emma, a woman he sees at a party. Each entry captures the loose, disparate details of daily life, including desires, frustrations, joys, social observations, anecdotes, advice, and the self, as depicted through emotional weather updates. Emma’s replies are not revealed, but the narrator’s persona is as he philosophizes and courts the object of his affection. He is a fan of boxing, a scientist by trade, and a student of the “vortex”—an entity he uses to describe his self-deterioration and the emptiness in his life. Together, the letters reveal the internal dialog of a conflicted protagonist who shadowboxes Emma, himself, and even the reader.

79 pages, Paperback

First published July 20, 2010

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About the author

Bill Callahan

9 books46 followers
Bill Callahan, also known as Smog and (Smog), is an American singer-songwriter. Callahan began working in the lo-fi genre of underground rock, with home-made tape-albums recorded on four track tape recorders. Later he began releasing albums with the label Drag City, to which he remains signed today.

In July of 2010 Drag City published Callhan's Letters to Emma Bowlcut, which is an epistolary novel told through a series of letters.

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5 stars
199 (29%)
4 stars
294 (43%)
3 stars
134 (19%)
2 stars
40 (5%)
1 star
12 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 86 reviews
Profile Image for Joshua Nomen-Mutatio.
333 reviews878 followers
February 6, 2012
Bill Callahan made his name by carving out pathways through the underbrush of the music world with a series of releases that began (c. 1990) with a (thankfully) brief period of atonal, unfriendly noise. This quickly grew into a long stretch of mostly dour but strangely beautiful and compelling albums that were usually very minimalistic, unpolished and centered around nothing but his vibrating vocal chords and the simple labor of a guitar or two, and maybe a few eerie notes wrought from a piano. This further matured into recordings with studio musicians and attempts to wipe away more of the gloom than usually was wiped away, with the crept-in inclusions of both brighter chord progressions and lyrical content. Throughout the majority of his career he hovered beneath the major radar seeking devices with the moniker Smog—that is until until 2007 when, instead, his legal name began to materialize as the representative of his music, perhaps as a signal of toxic clouds beginning to dissipate.

[See: Message Thirteen below for e.g.'s of music.]

Letters to Emma Bowlcut is Bill's first attempt to let the words alone do the talking. He ends up with a fairly impressive debut. It doesn't strive to be anything grand or critically revered. It has the rare weightlessness of humility, or did while held in my hands. It's just a quiet and subtly strange novella released by his record label without fanfare or syncophantic blurbs tattooed across its outerlayer.

This is the story of an unnamed man as told through a series of letters that he composes to a woman he'd met at a party. Much detail is left to the imagination throughout the book, but this creates further intrigue and causes the slim volume to radiate a restrained and haunting oddness. There's also mention of something called The Vortex, which the nameless protagonist makes equally undetailed mention of. As far as one can tell, this could be an actual physical structure that he studies scientifically (as is implied, but in a pretty vague and oblique manner) and/or could be a metaphor for some sort of emotional wound or mental disturbance. In either case, the prose that swirls around these things and the rest of the descriptions of a seemingly rather alone character is uniquely poetic while largely remaining plainspoken at the same time.

Other details include the character's trips to a local gym to view boxing matches in a distant and fragile way—like a depressed anthropologist rather than a genuine fan—and descriptions of visiting his grandmother in a nursing home—the final one involves drinking too much red wine and challenging his elders to bouts of arm-wrestling. For the most part each letter is a series of unpretentious musings about deceivingly simple things, renditions of his daily habits, and curiosities about the woman he's writing to. Again, all told through very brief letters written to a person who is, as far as one can tell, for the most part, a stranger to him.

Callahan's created an oddly compelling tale here, littered with tiny flares of plainspoken insight into loneliness and the attempts to quell it. It can easily be read in a single brief sitting—and I now think he's capable of pulling something off later that might take a little more effort.
Profile Image for tim.
66 reviews62 followers
January 7, 2012
The first half had me intoxicated with doe-eyed admiration. Unfortunately the last two sections sobered me right up and left me wondering what happened. Regardless, Bill Callahan still rocks the casbah with some amazing one-liners on par with Raymond Chandler such as: I think fish became humans because they didn't have any way to pistol whip each other. Or this three-liner: I would get you a personal assistant if I could. Like in the Russian novels where everyone, no matter how poor, had a maid and a butler. A maid to serve you a stale crust of bread and a butler to announce that it was ready. And now I shall listen to Apocalypse for the twenty-something time this week. My post-holiday soundtrack.
Profile Image for V..
66 reviews
July 7, 2011
Part 1 is pure poetry. 2 and 3 finds more prose amidst the bramble. Each line is beautiful enough to isolate and send in a text message to somebody you want to impress. I think of it like a chemical solution. Your eyes lose focus, the reaction occurs. I saw a change in color and saturation but only after it happened. Bill understands birds and eagles to such a degree that he could explain yourself to you better in terms of nests, wings and feathers. I was shocked there were no horses. This could be called romantic poetry but that would be mistaking the leader for the climax of the film. Bill always talks about his name, the weight of history on the scales. There are touches of the truly ancient. Vortecists were Greeks and Bill uses micrometers where they might have used sun dials. If I were writing an 'alternative' academic paper, I would mention Ezra Pound right now but I won't. Simply put, this book could be sung, etched into your forehead or handed down on stone tablets one letter at a time. Either way, reading it will still feel like flying without a thought wondering why nothing else modern and sad in the poetry section works like Bill does.

If I were writing a confrontational review for the newspaper or a content farm, the following would also be included: 'Go ahead. Get an MFA. See if you or your workshop leader will ever be able to write a line as good as Bill's worst.'
Profile Image for Tosh.
Author 13 books625 followers
January 20, 2016
An odd but, an effective book by Bill Callahan, who is known as Smog as well as making music under his real name. "Letters to Emma Bowlcut" are a series of correspondence to a girl that we know very little about, and not too much about the letter writer as well. We know he goes to the vortex, which is by no means clear if this is a real place or not, as well as watching boxing matches in a gym. The letters are only one-sided and from the author, but we do know that the woman that he writes to also sends him letters. The beauty of this book is Callahan's sardonic sense of humor. He's a very talented writer and he can convey the strangeness of a specific situation and comment on it. Whatever it's a boxing match or visiting his grandmother in a rest home, it is totally unique due to Callahan's point-of-view. If one is a fan of his music & lyrics (and what I have heard, is excellent) you, the reader, will love this book.
Profile Image for Kevin.
Author 33 books35.4k followers
October 18, 2017
Really enjoyed this weird little book. Sort of reminded me of Letters to Wendy's in its correspondence-style back and forth with itself and this "Emma." I love Callahan's music, so the goofiness of this book was a little bit of a surprise, but a really welcome one. Highly recommended for people who love voice-driven quick reads. Please write and sing more, Mr. Callahan.
Profile Image for M. Sarki.
Author 18 books203 followers
August 26, 2020

She said, she said, I know what it’s like to be dead... I said, Even though you know what you know, I know that I'm ready to leave. 'Cause you're making me feel like I've never been born.___John Lennon

Last week I read the last interview of John Ono Lennon and his partner Yoko. In it I learned the LSD story behind his Revolver album song, She Said, She Said. The opening quotation above is a paraphrase of that song’s lyrics and seems relevant to Callahan’s thin but powerful manuscript. For some reason yet unknown to me I liken Bill Callahan to John Lennon. Not surprising to me that these Callahan letters are just as interesting as his lyrics, especially if the reader is already a Bill Callahan/Smog fan. There can be no surprises for those of us who already listen to his fine songs and beautiful voice. Every line and word within these lines count toward his whole being. It may not make sense until much later, even years in some cases, age and life experience does matter. Callahan is an anomaly, and that is a good thing. Also important to note that the composition of a book like this takes more than it appears to those of us who think he could have put forth a better effort, perhaps working harder. It is not as easy as it looks. I can attest that each one or two page epistle most likely took him a day’s sitting down to it, with revisions still to come. Sixty-two entries are no small task. And these letters are very much like poems, or songs, and the music does come through, though mostly sad and feeling alone. And unsure of where he is going. Or where they are going. Based on my own personal experience with a project I titled Stamped Against the Night, it is quite possible Callahan had no idea what he was writing either until he had finished and had taken a better look at it. The letter writer is simply the man on the page and not necessarily Bill Callahan, although he has to be present often in one form or another. The composition is not perfect, nor is the character composing it. And that is the point. No hidden agendas. No secret code to break in order to get into Bill’s awesome truth. Raw power and strength is surely enough to sink one’s teeth into. And waiting oftentimes for some glimmer of inspiration which he does provide.
Profile Image for Ty.
129 reviews32 followers
December 23, 2010
There were some good lines in here but also lots of annoying ones, and I felt like the good ones should have been saved for songs instead of being used in these dumb fake letters. The whole thing just seems kind of lazy, like, if you want to have a book, why wouldn't you just write some stories or poems.

Books By Drag City Recording Artists And Whether They Are Dumb Or Not:

David Berman - The Portable February DUMB
Bill Callahan - Letters to Emma Bowl Cut MOSTLY DUMB
David Berman - Actual Air NOT DUMB
Profile Image for Emily VH.
29 reviews3 followers
March 28, 2021
I have read this at least 8 times. This is the most moved I have ever been by a book, and every letter is quotable. You may need to relate to Bill's isolating tendencies and the emotional toll that takes, but if you do, oh man. It's amazing how this is about something which at its core is so painful but at the same time the atmosphere is filled with acceptance and hope. Magic.
Profile Image for Mammals.
52 reviews1 follower
October 18, 2012
Dear Mr Callahan,

Thank you for filling an otherwise dull workday afternoon.
Most people would probably abandon ship when sailing on a sinking vessel.
But I just read. And wait.
Profile Image for felix.
16 reviews
March 3, 2022
3.5 - in true Bill Callahan fashion, the most heterosexual use of epistolary prose i’ve ever seen
Profile Image for Jessika.
652 reviews7 followers
Shelved as 'did-not-finish'
April 17, 2017
Nope, I'm sorry, this is too straight white male for me. For the record, here was my line in the sand:
[in a letter to a nameless woman]
Since the breakup with Robin there was a brief encounter with a girl who yelled at me for calling her puss a riddle. I was on my knees when I said it. I was still on my knees at the side of her bed when she stomped off, shaking the wood floor, causing a battery-operated penis to roll out and nudge my knee like a pup. Does this sound like I'm explaining death to a three year old.

Just. No. Life is too short for me to read shitty (one-sided) letters from a tedious man to a nameless woman who has apparently found enough inner strength to give this man the time of day.
Profile Image for alyce.
32 reviews11 followers
April 2, 2020
“I like your theory that the sounds that surround us sculpt the shape of our head. So I will sit in each empty room now feeling my head shift like a sand dune in a steady breeze.” (p. 23)
Profile Image for Tuck Rodi.
7 reviews
July 17, 2022
The vortex is on my back right now, compelling me to write this review.
Profile Image for Biddy Mahy.
23 reviews
May 31, 2023
A bit of the prose here felt a little random-for-random’s sake to me unfortunately. There were nice moments.
Profile Image for Michael Smith.
314 reviews15 followers
September 21, 2022
Bill Callahan has been a part of my life since early high school, since Smog, through all the shit. I’ll consume everybody he produces.
Profile Image for Evan.
7 reviews
August 21, 2019
Many times I've attempted to put it into words exactly what it is I've found so encapturing about Bill Callahan to me, and each time it feels like I've done it a disservice. I suppose that's what makes poetry, in all forms, compelling. To unlock something that the word alone cannot. I'm glad to say that this little book, despite being his only purely written work, is distinctly a Callahan piece of work. His one-liners, profoundly simplistic observations mixed with cryptic metaphor, often surrealistic imagery and dry, witty humor, have all lent to him becoming my favorite musical lyricist and are all here in spades. It's a deeply personal work with bounds of humor and poetry and an undercurrent of crippling loneliness.
Profile Image for Jenna.
3 reviews
November 13, 2019
I don’t know if I understand it, but I loved it nonetheless. Sardonic and somehow hopeful. Some strange poetic prose. “We live in a hoof print, dreaming of where the next foot will fall.” I loved it.
Profile Image for Jesús Santana.
129 reviews26 followers
June 30, 2013

Una novela epistolar bastante interesante es “Cartas a Emma Bowlcut” de Bill Callahan editada por Alpha Decay una editorial que lleva haciendo un gran trabajo presentándonos autores que pocos se animarían a traducir y mucho menos a publicar, esta casa editorial lo lleva haciendo con mucha fuerza desde hace bastante tiempo y dando sorpresas con cada nuevo trabajo editado. Bill Callahan es una muestra de ellos, músico indie que se atreve a hundirse en la arriesgada parte de la literatura como mezcla de música, prosa y poesía, ya Alpha Decay nos ha sorprendido gratamente publicando a Micah P. Hinson y Kristin Hersh dentro de estos valientes músicos y cantautores que deciden expandir su campo artístico.

Bill Callahan es un músico underground y líder de la banda Smog, agrupación bastante desconocida para la mass media y que este es su primer libro el cual según sus propias palabras le ha tomado una gran cantidad de tiempo escribir, debo aceptar que me ha dejado un muy buen sabor de boca esta presentación de otros futuros libros que editará y en los que lleva aparentemente trabajando lentamente. 62 cartas es lo que leeremos en este libro, todas dirigidas a Emma Bowlcut a quien solo vamos a conocer someramente mediante la lectura de ellas y Bill nos introduce en la mente y los sentimientos de un personaje con un corazón abierto que divide en tres partes estas cartas para ella con una prosa poética hermosa; es un viaje bien interesante conocer a alguien de quien nunca sabremos su nombre y que usa este método epistolar para abrirse ante ella después de conocerla en una fiesta; quien escribe las cartas pareciera encontrarse recluido en un psiquiátrico y por su imposibilidad de abrirse y tener el valor de hablarle directamente toma la iniciativa de escribir estas cartas y hacérselas llegar de alguna manera.

Darse a conocer a una desconocida con una prosa poética limpia y pura, con unos momentos llenos de nostalgia, poesía, dolor, miedos y humor es lo que intenta, una manera de mostrarle sus traumas y vivencias que lo han hecho quien es y si solo Emma Bowlcut decide conocerlo ya sabrá a que mundo intimo penetrará y esas razones que lo llevaron a tanta timidez y miedos.

Es interesante como Callahan logra dejar y manipular a quien lee estas maravillosas cartas en prosa, canciones, poemas y de esa manera tener una ultima opinión de quien es el que redacta, donde se encuentra y como ha sobrevivido tanto tiempo. No es un libro para leer de manera veloz a pesar de que se pueda leer en una tarde, es de esos libros que valen la pena tomarse un tiempo lento para disfrutarlo. Porque en definitiva estas cartas dejan pensando que quien las recibirá en su momento tiene un amor real o quien las recibe se ha enamorado de alguien que existe o que solo ha creado su imaginación para sobrevivir en el lugar que se ha hundido.

Profile Image for Vicky.
463 reviews
September 18, 2011
I love the back description: An unnamed man studies the Vortex and his surroundings. He begins writing letters to a strange woman he is attracted to at a party. In this epistolary novelette set sometime in the future, he tells her of his daily life and a relationship between them unfolds.


"Work is something I must ease back into. I can't really explain what I do. If you watched me it would look like almost nothing." (Letter 6)

"I am possibly lonely. I was trained to turn loneliness into laziness. The problem being I am not working hard enough to relax with a pure heart afterwards. I test and re-test the things I already know." (Letter 9)

"Understand that this is just talk, as I know you will. And it is unformulated and I might take it all back in a minute if I talk long enough. Which I'm not going to do." (Letter 10)

"I think it's a good idea not to give a fuck. I find myself suddenly not giving one. And I'm well aware that you can reshelve the books in flawless alphabetical order while still not giving a fuck." (Letter 11)

"[my] body is an offering when both feet are off the ground." (Letter 22)

"I walked aimlessly and it began to rain. Why do I do such things...I hope the answer is that I embrace life with abandon. But I fear the truth is that I'm irresponsible." (Letter 26)

"I sometimes see a shortcoming in myself, how little patience or understanding I have for many people with the way they act. I am able to see the fragility in some, but I only have so much time to wade through their manipulations and traps and draining behavior. Some people think I'm heartless in leaving others to suffer their own selves." (Letter 42)

"[it's] exhilarating and exhausting to meet so many people and have to be on." (Letter 42)

"It's 12:34 A.M. The time on the clock feels significant, as it often does here. As if the numbers are looking for the right combination to unlock me." (Letter 43)

"[I] was so excited about having the [new] calendar that I entered the expired events, too." (Letter 47)

"Why do some people get away with so much shit, do whatever they want, and people keep letting them back in." (Letter 55)
Profile Image for Steev Hise.
270 reviews35 followers
June 17, 2012
This is a weird and fun book, and also profound. For an author who I already know via his lyrics is really smart and creative and a little twisted, it's cool to see another view or angle on his talent. The book is in the form of a series of letters to a woman who the narrator has evidently become very fond of, but we don't see any of the letters back. The backdrop to his life is rather surreal - he works as some sort of scientist or technician who makes measurements on something called The Vortex. Nothing is ever really explained about what this Vortex is or what the organization is that he works for, but they seem to have an almost Orwellian control over his life. However, against this otherworldly, science fiction setting we have the narrator addressing very personal and deep issues and concerns about his life, his friendships and relationships, in poignant and moving ways. It had me wondering, of course, how much of it was autobiographical, and led me to a variety of questions, including "how much does Bill Callahan drink?" and "Does he treat women poorly or not?" The book will never tell us the answers, and perhaps that's for the best.
Profile Image for Marissa.
22 reviews3 followers
May 31, 2011
Bill Callahan is a genius. This was an interesting, sometimes sad, even sometimes sexy book told through letters from the narrator. Each letter, some only a few lines long, packed full of imagery and a sense of isolation the narrator felt in his secluded life. My favorite lines from the book are :"You are the reason I get out of bed. To tell you that I got out of bed. I want to pocket all your question marks and discard them discreetly when you aren't looking." Bill Callahan has such a way with words that only a true poet/songwriter can really do.
5 reviews
June 9, 2015
Innocent trees died for this crap. I don't mind putting in a lot of effort to understand a difficult book. That's the implicit contract between authors like Nabokov or David Foster Wallace and us as readers: "If you, dear reader, put in your share of work, I guarantee you that I did my very best to make it worth it." But apart from the occasional cute oneliner, this book is just pointless. Pretty much anything in this book can mean pretty much anything. It is incoherent, vague, unrewarding.
6 reviews1 follower
February 3, 2022
my friend told me last night that white noise is gonna be a movie and I randomly thought of this book today and in hindsight Emma (though you never actually hear from her) kinda reminds me of baba. if you listen to bill C you can probably guess what this book is like. read-it-in-a-day sorta book, composed of letters (hence the title) with no context in fragmented almost poetic (whatever that means) language. beautiful at times if you’re into that sorta thing
Profile Image for rows.
33 reviews16 followers
August 30, 2014
Tedium meets desperate alienation meets a burst of inspiration. It grows fangs and claws, loses a leg and turns rabid. Callahan's a metaphor whiz, illustrating a transformation in ways both intimately inviting and harrowing. I was going to give or send this book to someone or other, but I think I'll hang on to it to reread sometime first.
Profile Image for Chris.
47 reviews
July 19, 2011
Don't try to read it as a novel or a poem. Just read it. Callahan has an enviable facility with words.

I will confess, though, that I find his songs more cathartic than "Emma Bowlcut." Personal preference, I guess.
Profile Image for Joseph.
25 reviews1 follower
January 5, 2015
"Being in those dentist chairs gives one time to think about one's feet. I have a theory that feet should not be different temperatures, that it causes upset and even illness. In the winter, if I can only find one sock, I wear none."

(pp. 9)
Profile Image for De Ongeletterde.
358 reviews22 followers
November 3, 2013
Beetje vreemd boek: allemaal brieven waar je soms zelf de samenhang tussen moet ontdekken.
Meer dan twee sterren kan ik dit toch niet geven...
Geef mij maar 's mans muziek!
Profile Image for fff.
50 reviews
January 25, 2018
Den vildeste deadpan, meget ømme og dumme bog jeg nogensinde har læst. Her er ét ud af mange fantastiske eksempler på fortællerens fantastiske had til verden, eller behov for den? Faktisk skriver jeg to:

“Letter 23:
Robin was a strong swimmer in the strong water. Much stronger than me. And she constantly wanted to race. I hated to lose in my soul. I would always try to hold her. I liked the way her body felt underwater.
She just wanted to race and would dart above and below me like a beam of light while I flabbily gasped and flabbily thrashed. Once, I placed my foot squarely on her chest and pushed. But I went nowhere. She wooshed back in the water’s slowness.
She jumped out of the pool and went to the women’s locker room without looking back. I found her later in the bleachers watching toddlers play softball on a truncated diamond.
So I have kicked a woman. But I was thinking longterm.”

“Letter 7: it could be a yeast infection. You should get it checked. Don’t make your old man make love to a donut (...)”

“Letter 36: I will only be there a few days. But if It’s alright with you can we take the breakfast-dates one morning at the time. If I don’t get my eight hours - I will eat your children.”
Displaying 1 - 30 of 86 reviews

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