Translated by Will Vanderhyden. Rochester, NY: Open Letter Books, 2018. 290 pages. $15.95.
Never one to shy away from his pop culture influences, Argentine writer Rodrigo Fresán opens his latest novel, The Bottom of the Sky—a celebration and playful prodding of the science fiction genre—with seven epigraphs. To new readers of the author, this block of quotes probably appears excessive, but Fresán’s writing is something of a puzzle box, and each epigraph provides a hint to the author’s big picture endgame. Passages from Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, and John Banville speak to the novel’s exploration of parallel universes (a subject also investigated in Fresán’s celebrated earlier work, The Invented Part), yet it is the inclusion of words from Adolfo Bioy Casares that provides the curious reader a clearer blueprint, for like Casares’s great novella The Invention of Morel, Fresán’s engrossing tale is one of vanishing characters, reproduced realities, and the subversion of time.
The novel is broken into three sections. The first, titled “This Planet,” is also the longest, and is built around elderly science fiction writer Isaac Goldman as he pens a series of scattered memories in the year 2001 (a nod to Kubrick’s film, which Fresán makes sure to acknowledge via Isaac’s musings). A New Yorker, Isaac is raised by his aunt and uncle after his mother dies in the 1918 flu epidemic and his father’s sanity deteriorates. Paired with his cousin Ezra Leventhal, also a novice scribe, Isaac is introduced to the city’s budding sci-fi scene, one he describes as “a combination of meteorological forecast and horoscope and hundred-meter dash” (65). The duo dubs themselves The Faraways, and they mingle with other young authors sporting futuristic monikers—The Cosmics, The Astronomics, The Dimensionals—selling their stories to small print outfits, and it is not long before a cryptic, nameless girl enters their lives. Herself a writer, she weaves a web of devotion around Isaac and Ezra before disappearing mysteriously, setting off a series of events that ends with Isaac and Ezra growing older and drifting apart. Ezra leaves to work on secret military projects for the US government, and Isaac continues to build a career in science fiction, one that frequently mirrors that of real life author Richard Matheson, composing scripts for programs similar to Star Trek and The Twilight Zone and publishing a series of novels. Yet as the now much older Isaac looks back on his life, he recognizes instances when time and dimensional slips seemed to occur. For example, Philip K. Dick, whom Isaac doesn’t recognize, is the credited author of books formerly attributed to the fictional Warren Wilbur Zack. Isaac also speaks of something called The Incident: an encounter with Ezra, who beams himself from a different timeline into an empty floor of New York City’s World Trade Center on September 11.
“This Planet” flirts with parallel dimensions and time, but it isn’t until the World Trade Center encounter that Fresán fully commits to the concept, and afterward, the author’s fairly straightforward narrative approach is upended in favor of less linear and fewer Earthbound segments. In this, Fresán toys with not only narrative rhythm and presentation, but also the way his audience ingests plot, pulling us away from characters and jumping around locations. Section Two, titled “The Space Between This Planet and the Other Planet,” alternates between text from one of Isaac’s novels, which may also be the words of an alien monitoring Earth, and a desert-bound troop during the 2003 Iraq War. The novel’s third section, titled “The Other Planet,” shifts in perspective to the nameless woman from Isaac’s youth, herself able to move through time and space (“I live all times at the same time,” she claims (208)). She speaks of simultaneous realities and the various disasters that resulted in the end of the world, while herself disrupting the aging process, appearing young in both 1960 and 2001. An admittedly dense read, the novel’s second half functions something like a magic act: showing the reader the hidden meanings and implications of Isaac’s minor interactions throughout his life. Ostensibly random encounters are revealed to be deliberate moves by certain characters, and works of science fiction transform into haunting realities when invented tragedies by Evan and Isaac play out before their eyes.
The Bottom of the Sky is a novel engineered for repeated readings, if only to appreciate Fresán’s expert patterning of images and phrases, which lends itself to the story’s parallel universes and disappearing/reappearing characters. One of the best illustrations of this talent comes with the arrival of snow, first encountered in a scene of Isaac and Ezra building an army of snowmen outside the nameless woman’s window. As Isaac explains:
. . . the two of us there, in the snow, standing in front of all these snowmen and that huge sphere . . . it was as if we—Ezra and I—were ascending through the snow, motionless but alive in the pale light of the new day. And it was as if each snowflake—distinct from all the others—were a singular star. (10)
The moment acts as a narrative anchor to balance itself against the novel’s loftier ideas, yet it also echoes the journeys of Fresán’s characters and the tragedies they face, from Ezra’s role in the testing of the atomic bomb, to the shower of ash coating Manhattan after the collapse of the Twin Towers, when Isaac believes he spots the nameless woman amid the clouds of destruction.
Late in the novel, in one of the ends of the world divulged by the nameless woman, the Big Bang fails to create more than a spark, while in another, a randy JFK forgets to cancel firing orders when trying to impress a young co-ed. These recollections of alternate realities bring humor to the novel, but more importantly, they suggest the inevitable mortality of everything, be it planets or relationships, and in the end, this is what the characters in The Bottom of the Sky want most to understand. As Isaac, Ezra, and the nameless woman try to recapture their youthful snowbound happiness—encountering aliens from the planet Urkh 24, human transmitters, the writing of Isaac and Ezra’s famous novel, Evasion, and a character intended to represent Scientology’s L. Ron Hubbard along the way—they also face the reality of life’s terminal nature. “This is not a novel of science fiction,” Fresán writes in the book’s acknowledgements. “It is—it was and will be—a novel with science fiction” (257). In this regard, the author succeeds. Sure, upon finishing the final page, readers may find themselves quoting Isaac, who admits, “I’d be lying if I said I understood all of it” (79), after exiting a screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but The Bottom of the Sky is still a novel full of rewarding ideas and genuine emotion.