Like an asteroid from deep space, Roberto Bolaño’s just-published novel The Spirit of Science Fiction, in a sparkling translation by Natasha Wimmer for the Penguin Press, comes without any warning or, for that matter, any background information. But as with the author of The Savage Detectives, One Night in Chile, Distant Star, and 2666, any newly-published Bolaño title is inherently of interest. And this one is especially welcome.

As is so often the case, after an author’s death what comes to light is often what had been cast aside or even forgotten by the writer, of interest only to the scholars. Sometimes, as with Proust’s Jean Santeuil, it has an inherent value; reading that unfinished novel we can see how Proust first attempted a more traditional approach to his novel using much the same material that later went into his masterpiece. All of that would change once he had found his voice, his point of view, and his theme. So I had my doubts when I heard that The Spirit of Science Fiction was forthcoming. I assumed it would be a minor work, a youthful attempt, a series of sketches. It’s anything but that. It turns out that the Bolañoesque universe, style, themes and all, was already formed even as far back as this early work.


A review of Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction by Chris Andrews (Columbia University Press, 2014), Bolaño, A Biography in Conversations by Mónica Maristain, translated by Kit Maude (Melville House, 2014) and A Little Lumpen Novelita by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer (New Directions, 2014)


Some readers turn to fiction to find not a mirror of the world they live in with all its ambiguity and ugliness, but a comfortable construct where beginnings are followed by middles and conclude with at least moderately-happy ends. The bad earn their comeuppance, while the good get the girl/win the man/score the job/enter heaven. It’s a version of the Elizabethan worldview, where a society riven with murder and incest and terror always rights itself in the end. “The time is out of joint,” Hamlet says early on the play, and at the end young Fortinbras will ride in to reset the clock. A broken world always ended up mended, all its gears and springs put back in place. We tell ourselves stories to make sense of the wayward quality of our lives. We tell stories to soften the painful edges and pull the sting out of the bad moments we wish had never happened. We tell stories because we always want everything to end happily ever after, just like we were taught as kids, when the big people read to us. Even our memories get a little soft and rounded over time, just to shine a kinder glow on ourselves. But the twentieth century also made vividly clear just how chaotic and uncertain life is. Evil can rise up in the pathetic guise of a nondescript German corporal, or of a skinny disaffected ex-Marine in his Texas backyard with a mail-order rifle, not to mention—going back a few centuries—the pious crucifixed footmen of the Spanish Insurrection who promised you heaven and then broke your legs. It’s the smiling soldier who marches you under the sign that claims Arbeit macht frei, or the man who calls you out of the dark doorway and draws you into the Mexican desert with his guarantee of mercy and salvation. This is the world of Roberto Bolaño; this is the carnival of wandering troubadours and lost souls.

Reading the works of Roberto Bolaño is a bit like hitchhiking in some godforsaken frontier territory. You stick out your thumb and wait. A semi zooms by, air-horn blasting, abandoning you to the dusty whirlwind of its wake and a brief glimpse of its NRA sticker and the inevitable Semper Fi crookedly plastered to the bumper. One minivan, two SUVs, an RV, a camper—they all pass you by. It’s rough country out here; you could be anyone. You could be Dick and Perry, looking for some middle-aged traveling salesman with a wallet full of fives and a tank full of gas and feeling in need of a little friendly chitchat in the middle of Kansas. Someone gives you the finger as you’re left behind to face darkness and uncertainty. The sky’s grown dark; the owls have come out to haunt. Headlights round the distant bend. Then an old pickup, unworthy of safety inspection, creaks to a halt. A model you haven’t seen in years. The driver turns his gaptoothed grin on you, a smile reeking of cheap brandy, his skin bleeding meth. He lights a Camel and starts to talk, or rather continues to talk, because he’d been talking when you opened the door, and even when you expressed your gratitude for his stopping, as if he were telling a story he’d begun days or weeks or even months earlier, but you’re in the midst of it, he’s telling about this guy he’d met at a bar, and this woman he knew, and some weird things were happening, man, there was a knife and an armadillo, and you don’t know if you’ll ever reach your destination or be murdered by this man who won’t shut up, who is telling four stories at once, and nothing’s making much sense.

“Thank you for your interest in Zoetrope: All Story,


We are a staff of two, assisted by a small team of brilliant and generous volunteers, who are collectively dedicated to reading and responding to the 12,000 submissions All Story receives annually…

…All-Story does not accept submissions via e-mail. Send stories to:…”

The above guidelines come from Zoetrope: All Story, one of the top tier literary magazines of today. My response:

Dear Zoetrope,

Your submission guidelines are fucked up. Snail mail had a purpose…once. There are better options, and the time is now.

The list of deservedly established writers published at your magazine is formidable: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Woody Allen, Margaret Atwood, Julian Barnes, Roberto Bolaño, Robert Olen Butler, Don DeLillo, Mary Gaitskill, Kathryn Harrison, Ha Jin, Jonathan Lethem, Yiyun Li, Naguib Mahfouz, Alice Munro, Salman Rushdie, Kurt Vonnegut, & David Foster Wallace. Many writers would love to join this crew, do not mind submitting, and hope to be “discovered” on the slush pile. Yet how do the majority of your authors submit? I doubt Woody Allen stuffs an envelope and drops it in the mail, fingers crossed, hoping Zoetrope will make his proverbial day. But that’s what you demand of the regular scribe, and while all writers are not stereotypical “starving artists,” they would love to save a dime or two, unlike ol’ Woody, who can afford the postage. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, Woody’s earned the privilege, but then why bother taking submissions from the masses? No matter how good an unknown’s story is, Woody and friends aren’t gettin’ bumped. Fetid grapes aside, The New Yorker now accepts E-subs, but even The Diddle Ass Review should. And so should Zoetrope.

Electronic mail or submission managers are no longer science fiction, and function more efficiently than snail. E-subs might create an overflow of stories, but there are solutions: short windows for submissions or charging nominal fees (not writer friendly, either, chief sinner Narrative Magazine, charging nasty clam so they can pay all the writers they solicit, but that’s another rant). Here’s the analysis:

Estimated annual cost of 12,000 nine-page stories plus cover letters:

  • $ 600 12,000 8½ x11 envelopes 120 x $5 per packet of 100 envelopes
  • $14,040 $1.17 Postage for 12,000 submissions
  • $ 240 12,000 4×9 envelopes for SASE 120 x $2 per packet of 100 envelopes
  • $ 5,280 $0.44 Postage for 12,000 SASE
  • $ 1,200 120,000 pages @240 x $5 per 500-page ream
  • $ 960 Printer ink cartridges @10,000 pages per cartridge = 12 x $80

Total = $22,320 or over $1,800 per month.

  • Not included but should be considered wasteful:
  • Gas to deliver 12,000 submissions plus 11,998 rejections and two rewrite requests
  • At 3 inches a 500-leaf ream, a 60-foot tall tree of paper

Time at printer preparing envelopes, etc. @five minutes/submission = 100 hours (not to mention time spent by “brilliant and generous volunteers” who, with Bartleby-like futility, refine skills in a Sisyphean search for fabulous stories that will never be accepted by Zoetrope)

Fifty Zoetrope clones would push the cost over a million dollars. Smaller mags? Every 100 subs/month = $2,232/year. Yet as the smaller mags regularly publish from slush, the waste not as egregious.

Zoetrope, your guidelines continue: “Before submitting, non-subscribers should read several issues of the magazine.” What a deal! I’m sure you’re not intentionally trying to screw writers, but c’mon, this is way totally like effin’ really just absolutely too fucked up.
Certainly, writers should do their part, not waste editors time with inappropriate submissions, and buy, read, and support literary magazines; that’s yet another topic. Bottom line: writers might buy more magazines if they had more money, and they might read more if they had more time. Right? If one writer has ten stories and submits each story twenty times that’s over $350 a year a writer could spend on food, rent, books, and subscriptions to literary magazines. Sure, Zoetrope, you are not the only guilty party. Those lovable stalwarts over at The Sun, despite their concern about social issues, environment, and poverty, refuse to evolve. Others? The list includes The Atlantic, Crab Creek Review, Creative Nonfiction, The Georgia Review, The Iowa Review, The Texas Review, Zyzzyva, etc., not to mention the publishers and agents that postpone electronic. The cost rises into millions of dollars, a forest of paper trees, and oodles of wasted hours. So Zoetrope and cohorts, big and small, agents and editors and publishers, take heed: Stop the snail. Or be fucked up.


Caleb “The Mad Writer” Powell

An Adequate Idea

By Doug Bruns


I was recently engaged in a conversation that ended with the phrase, “The difference between us, Doug, is that I am a man of faith and you have no faith.” It was delivered with shrugged shoulders, a slightly tilted head and the nervous hint of a smile. It was not mean-spirited, just a declaration, yet it seemed to carry the impress of righteousness. I found it a curious thing, this conversation-stopping declaration. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The message read Feliz Navidad Guapisimo!

Spaniards toss around the word guapo/a as if it were a definite article, but the extra oomph given to any noun with -isimo/a is not to be taken lightly and should be considered serious flirtation.

The number had no name attached to it, but I assumed it was from a girl, as most men don’t call other men guapisimo unless they’re gay or being facetious.

I had just gotten through customs at Madrid’s Barajas airport on New Year’s Eve and turned on my phone.

Without even considering who it could be, I replied Feliz Año Nuevo Guapisima! in spite of my disdain for exclamation points.

Fortune and the year 2007 seemed certain.

Emerging from the metro near my home, a reply came back from the same unrecognized number. It read, Pasalo genial esta noche. Nos vemos en clase, which meant she was a student of mine and I would find out within the week who it was.

Her name turned out to be Itziar (pronounced eat-SEE-are). I love uncommon names, the rarer the better and this one topped the list of exotic names. To boot, she was easily the most physically fit and attractive one at a company of about 100 women where I taught her in class. I had even made the conscious decision at the beginning of the 2006 school year to continue teaching at that company merely to be around her.

The following Friday evening I texted her a question about salsa dancing and if she knew where classes were offered. After a few back-n-forth messages, she finally sent me this bomb: I know that in Tropical House they give classes, I don’t know which day exactly. I can offer myself as a partner but what I would really like is to know if you’re doing anything this evening because you seem like a very interesting person and I would like to get to know you better and, if we end up dancing, all the better…

My pupils widened and blood rushed to my genitals. I almost dropped the phone.

I immediately canceled my other plans that evening and was over at her house within 2 hours.

She opened the door; the dream began.

She was wearing tight-yet-comfortable sweatpants and a tank top that revealed about four inches of tight skin covering muscled indentations. Her face was uncomplicated by paint and highlights. Despite her Basque name, she grew up in the Andalusian town of Malaga and appeared somewhere outside the realm of the guide book Spanish woman. That is, her hair was light brown and not raven black; her eyes were bluish-green instead of brown and her skin leaned toward a paler shade of olive. Her twenty-eight year old face maintained a simple contentment, unwrinkled by fixed expressions. She spoke very softly.

She gave me the tour of her flat, explaining that her roommate was out of town for the weekend and she had the flat all to herself.

She looked at me smiled.

Blood rushed to my face, and my genitals. I smiled and looked away.

She cooked while we talked. I kept averting extended looks, wondering to myself what I was doing in her flat. I tried to act natural and not acknowledge the fact that she revealed a midriff that sparkled a belly button ring highlighting abs that she probably spent several hours a week on. Her breasts were magazine perfect.

I understood that she was my student and this was completely outside the professional boundaries that were established by my language academy. But damn, it felt oh-so-right to be there and notions of boundaries quickly vanished in the reflection of her ab ring.

We listened to Nina Simone and ate from a full spread of tortilla, salmon and brie, croquetas and a spinach salad, washed down with a Reserva Tinto from Rioja from 1996. Good year.

Quieres salir para bailar?

Sí, bueno, si quieres.

Me visto y nos vamos – vale?


I offered to wash up the dishes while she got ready but she insisted there was no way I was doing her dishes, that I was her guest and I should just sit down on the sofa, relax and wait. I agreed.

In the living room I perused her copy of Los Detectives Salvajes. (The Savage Detectives)

I looked at the ceiling. A huge concave indentation, like a inverted golden saucer being sucked into the upper floor, decorated the room, gave it a retro-Roman dome feel.

I took out my camera and pushed a button.

I intended to snap a shot of her sometime that evening but opportunity and memory failed me.

She came out of her room wearing knee-high glossy boots, the same tank top and suspenders.

Women in boots always look definitely serious and unarguably sexual, but suspenders? Never had suspenders looked so alluring.

On the street, she suggested going to this club called 69 petalos. I agreed. In the club, every guy in the club looked at her, then at me. I felt somehow unworthy and worthy. The shy part felt like she was way out of my league and the arrogant part felt like, “Wait a sec…that’s right, I’m the man.” We danced to some 80s classics for about an hour and she suggested that we go. I agreed.

I agreed to everything she suggested that night: dinner, dancing, not washing her dishes and sharing her single bed overnight.

I awoke early and in the morning sunlight that layered her half-covered naked body, I saw an inch-long faint-but-noticeable scar on the lower part of her breast. As I dressed I could see a picture of her topless on a beach with breasts that weren’t nearly as round as the ones that were now attached so perfectly attached to her body.

One and one made two.

I realized I had left my scarf and, in an attempt to be poetic and romantic all at once, I sent a message to the effect of: I dreamed last night that a beautiful woman made me dinner, we went dancing and then had a wonderful night in the dark. When I awoke, I realized my scarf was missing.

She replied immediately saying that, yes, last night was something special and she would give me the scarf the next time we met, which she wanted to be that same night.

The next week in class I was a nervous, stammering twat. The class was comprised of six women and the lights in the meeting/class room were piercing and relentless. After class via text, she asked me if I was okay giving her class, if I felt comfortable. I lied and told her yes; the truth was I had never experienced such a high heart rate and self-consciousness while giving classes.

Having a student as a lover, especially a secretive one, was exhilarating because it was partially wrong,  nerve-wracking because it was partially right and twat-inducing because of its secrecy.

Several weeks passed and this formula repeated: dinner, movie, sex and sleep. Conversation between us wasn’t exactly as electrifying as the sex, and thus it wasn’t explored or developed. What we did talk about didn’t move very far beyond our days (her pilates class or the progress of what I was writing), the movie we just watched, or our separate and joint plans for the weekend.

To negligibly greater or lesser degrees, this is probably the composite whole of too many relationships throughout the world.

After about four weeks, she came over and wrote on the whiteboard in my living room.

Te quiero mucho que la trucha al trucho!!

This Spanish saying doesn’t rhyme in English because we don’t have gendered nouns, but it basically says, “I love you very much like the female trout to the male trout.”

Several Spaniards told me this is something a mother would say to her baby, that it’s cute because mucho rhymes with trucho and that I shouldn’t put too much stock in it, i.e. she’s not declaring love, just being cute.

But just to see the words “Te quiero mucho…” forced me to evaluate her as more than just a lover, the potential one (or one of the ones) or even just a consistent girlfriend — part of the idyllic Spanish life I had wanted since arriving.

Other hints, notes and pet names appeared. “Mi amor…” , “Cielo” and more. She even once offered to marry me in order to get me papers. I doubted she was serious at the time, but it surely drew me further into her.

In some email early in March I mentioned that I had changed my mind about wanting to wait until the weekend to see her. I wrote …cambie de mentewhich I thought was how you’d say I changed my mind.

She replied, slyly correcting me with Has cambiado de idea? Vale.

You learn the details of a language like this, with subtle corrections.

So on my ever growing stack of flashcards, I wrote down the proper translation of the expression, “to change one’s mind.”


In Spanish, to change one’s mind is to change one’s idea (literally).

It makes no intuitive sense and the more you think about it, neither does it in English. It just sounds natural to you because you’ve always said it that way. If I could have any real influence in how this should be said, I would propose that everyone says change one’s opinion, because this is precisely what happens.

You hold an opinion of someone or something and then it–not your mind–changes for reasons either external, internal or both.

One week later on Sunday evening I messaged her that I didn’t feel well and that we should get together later in the week.

She didn’t reply.

I called her.

She didn’t answer.

I called her an hour later.

Same result.

I messaged and called her the next day as well.

No reply.

She didn’t come to class on Tuesday.

I emailed her and after a full week, she replied.

In an email that consisted of five sentences, she told me she needed time to think and that she would call me the following day.

No call.

Two weeks later, after I had pleaded for some sort of explanation to the silence, she finally took the time out to write me a ten sentence email.

How generous.

She said that she had been a coward in facing me, that she was a very closed person and she had built up walls to protect herself, that she felt like she needed to be alone and that blah blah it’s-not-your-fault-it’s-mine blah.

A few times over the course of the next four months I saw her fleetingly in the company where I taught. Twice she walked by and our eyes met just before one of us disappeared into another room.

I once walked past her at the copier and felt nervous, resentful blood rushing all over.

The dream disappeared with her change of mind, shortly after she corrected me on how to say it properly.

If it weren’t for a picture of her ceiling, two of my friends that met her briefly and this damn flashcard…


I wouldn’t have any proof as to her existence.

I try not to see the irony in it, but it’s too obvious.

I wrote this particular saying down because of her correcting me and it precisely and concisely describes her final action regarding me.

What an unforgettable way to learn an idiomatic expression.

Now, a year later, I realize how lucky I am to have never liked fake breasts.

The subway train slows into the station and smoothes to a soft, comfortable stop.

It’s the fourth stop on my five-stop ride.

There are no seats available and I find myself standing directly opposite the set of entrance/exit doors.

Doors open, several people exit.

In the wake of their exit stands a rugged-looking hombre in his early 40s, holding a tall-boy of Mahoua Classica in one hand–the Madrileña king of beers–and a cigarette in the other. His dark green trenchcoat is bedraggled and frayed; his well-worn jeans end to reveal a pair of once-white tennis shoes that look like they were soaked for days in asparagus-alimented piss.

At his feet lies an old typewriter.