The Bottom of the Sky by Rodrigo Fresán, translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden, Open Letter Books, 2018
“At its core,” reads its synopsis, The Bottom of the Sky is “about two young boys in love with a disturbingly beautiful girl”; author Rodrigo Fresán adds that it’s not a work of science fiction but with science fiction—a “love story in a space suit.” I’d like to challenge (or, more humbly, qualify) both statements: Fresán’s striking novel, now available in English from Open Letter Books, is more gender-bending than its back cover suggests and more genre-bending than its author says.
In parts I and II, young sci-fi devotees Isaac and Ezra fall madly in love with unnamed “her” in mid-twentieth-century Manhattan. They spend a winter’s night building men and planets out of snow for her as she gazes out at them from her bedroom window. She disappears. Heartbroken, Ezra becomes a scientist; Isaac becomes a sci-fi writer and edits Evasion, an anonymous cult novel whose pages he mysteriously receives. The two part ways but ultimately connect at alternate points in time and space and as alternate versions of themselves, often in what should be fatal circumstances that they somehow survive; each occasionally spots “her” as well. Ezra points to Evasion—fragments of which are interspersed throughout part II—as the key to these strange happenings: in it, the citizens of a distant planet are fascinated by Earth and human history; they can’t stop watching us, so they interfere with terrestrial events in order to keep our world (their show) from ending.
If the novel itself were to “end” on this note (it’s written non-sequentially and the above is merely an attempt at a linear synopsis), it would indeed be a romance with sci-fi: Ezra and Isaac’s love for the “disturbingly beautiful girl” would lie at its core, complemented by an alien race’s love of humans. Science fiction would feature in a secondary, quadruple role: not only at the level of plot—through aliens’ presumed influence on the fabric of earthly spacetime—but also through Fresán’s countless allusions to works of sci-fi, his male protagonists’ interest in the genre, and their comparisons between inner and outer time and space. Isaac, for instance, speaks of memory as an “inexplicable time-machine” and of his past as a “fourth dimension and an alternate planet”; he later likens memory to “an astronaut struggling to establish lasting connections between the stars,” which, “though distant and out of reach, still form part of the proximal yet elusive nebulas of our thoughts.”
It’s part III that makes this a remarkable work in terms of genre and gender. We find out that Earth’s alien observers operate through “transmitters,” humans that can see all worldly events at all times and alter them when instructed. “She” is one such transmitter and must vanish from Isaac and Ezra’s life in order to prevent a potential apocalypse. Heartbroken herself, she secretly writes Evasion as a way of communicating with them from afar, and begins tweaking history in an attempt to re-create that long-gone winter’s night in the snow: “Sometimes I’m able to reunite them somewhere else, in some other moment … before I can put myself into the scene. Sometimes I manage … to see them separately. And for them to see me.” This explains why they and their alter egos keep showing up—together or alone, with or without her—in alternate times and places, and why they never seem to die. “She” is responsible for their unending, multiverse existence.
This is “not a science-fiction story,” she claims, “because the only thing this story does is look back, remember, fabricate memories in the memory machine.” She’s right and wrong: right in that it isn’t purely sci-fi and wrong in that it merely looks back. In fact, the novel’s genre twist—what makes it not just a love story with sci-fi but, if I may, a brilliant psy-fi story—emerges from her memories’ equivalence to facts: her recalling events as she searches for the snow episode is tantamount to bringing them about. She explains this in the negative by stating that “everything that happened is stored” in her memory “so that what might have happened does not happen”—in other words, what she doesn’t remember doesn’t come to pass. “To empty my memory is to make room in space,” she adds, establishing a direct connection between the two; likewise, she claims that time is a “material out of which I extract multiple variations and use the one that suits me.” More explicitly, she describes the snow episode as the “materialization of my memory.”
Thus, while Isaac compares psychological and astronomical spacetime in a metaphorical sense, she literally equates them. Nowhere is this clearer than in her references to the so-called “bottom of the sky”: she often speaks of it in terms of outer time and space—as transcending “every corner of the universe,” for instance—but ultimately defines it as “the heaven of my consciousness,” where Isaac and Ezra can exist “suspended forever in the time and space of my love.” The novel’s genre might best be thought of as psy-fi, then, because it’s a hybrid in which the subjective and the speculative overlap: “her” psyche doesn’t merely create her lovers’ multiverse; it is that multiverse.
It should be obvious by now that she dominates the plot and that its synopsis doesn’t do her justice. The Bottom of the Sky is about two boys in love with a disturbingly beautiful girl, yes, but not at its core. In his acknowledgments, Fresán says he scribbled “woman devastates men like a tsunami” as he outlined the novel. Syntax matters: while the back cover makes “her” a beautiful object of male love, the author turns men into objects of her might. The Bottom of the Sky is, first and foremost, about a disturbingly powerful girl in love with two boys.
This is further proof that it isn’t a classic sci-fi or love story: in classic science fiction, as she herself tells us, women are “mercurial Amazonian princesses or dedicated laboratory assistants” meant to “scream or be taken prisoner so the hero could rescue them.” Traditional romance is hardly different: there is a daring hero and a distressed damsel begging to be saved. In one of Ezra’s recollections of the snow episode, in fact, he pictures “her” as “the beautiful prisoner in the highest tower of the castle” and he and Isaac as her “devoted knights.” He soon challenges the trope, however (they “dare not rescue her”), and part III completely overturns it: “she” is the “secret and nameless heroine” trying to save them—and herself—by recreating the night that most clearly depicts their love.
Her attempts are described as an authorial act: she manages “to write and delete …, to force the experiment to bend more toward fiction than science” by “inserting slight corrections here and there.” While she explicitly takes on the narrative voice only in the third and final part of the novel, we’re forced to re-evaluate the identity of the male narrators who have preceded her: part I is told by Isaac; part II is alternately narrated by one of Isaac’s alter egos (an American soldier in the Middle Eastern desert) and Evasion’s presumably male alien protagonist. Since in part III she reveals that she wrote the cult novel and her lovers’ life stories, though, she might be fairly deemed the author of parts I and II as well. This, again, constitutes a challenge to genre: sci-fi writers have traditionally been male (women, at most, their “occasional girlfriends”), but “she” is the greatest of them all.
It is not only discourse that shifts from a classic male perspective to a female one: so does the gaze—a topic that permeates the novel. As young boys, says Isaac, he and Ezra read about “beings with thousands of revolving pupils that never tired of devouring … princesses with their eyes, which weren’t, but at the same time were, our eyes.” The two friends can’t stop looking at “her” while she is present in their lives, and the male alien from Evasion can’t stop looking at humans. “She,” however, ends up being portrayed as the ultimate observer—the only one who can see everything in every place at every time; the one who transmits what she sees back to her alien operator, who cannot see it for himself; the one who looks at—and looks back on—every worldly episode.
There may, however, be little more than watching to do. According to Fresán, The Bottom of the Sky is meant to show that “there’s nothing quite as alien as the invasion of love,” but it deals with its evasion just as much; in fact, it could easily take on the title of the novel within it. Even though aliens plan to conquer Earth as a new habitat (they appear to be getting sick due to some kind of planetary anomaly), their “wild yet shy and secret love” for humans compels them to keep “watching us and saving us” until “they forget about themselves. They evade themselves” and soon begin to die. The same could be said of “her” regarding Isaac and Ezra: she leaves them (she evades them) because she loves them and must prevent an apocalyptic scenario in which they perish; in doing so, she evades her desire and is condemned to watch them forever (recovering the snow episode would hardly change that, since all she and her lovers do during that fateful night is stare at each other).
Evasion, of course, is a form of solitude; in his acknowledgments, Fresán claims he likes to think of his novel as dealing with “cosmic loneliness.” Revealingly, Isaac and Ezra call each other The Faraways, as does Evasion’s narrator. Isaac makes it clear that he, his friend, and their beloved “began and ended in ourselves” and that the two young men “orbit around her,” like planets around a star: there’s a pull, yes, but also an unbreachable gap. “Nobody,” she says, “is further away from everything than I am.”
At the same time, in her double role as writer and observer, she constitutes a bridge between two worlds—a cosmic translator of sorts. On the one hand, she makes Evasion’s protagonist “think and even write with terrestrial terminology … out of respect for the origin of the readers,” i.e., humans. On the other hand, she’s able to “bring visions from one world to another”—from our planet to an alien one—in a form that can be appreciated by the latter’s inhabitants.
In dealing with Fresán’s exquisite prose, Will Vanderhyden is equally successful. His generally close adherence to the original’s word choice, grammar, and syntax yields a masterful translation punctuated by infrequent—and, as it turns out, welcome—oddities, usually connected to Latinate words and parenthetical clauses: the widespread “exactitud” in Spanish, for instance, becomes the much more formal “exactitude” in English (as opposed to, say, “accuracy” or “precision”); a smooth construction like “el cuerpo inerte pero no muerto —tan sólo en animación suspendida— de un contador de historias” is translated word for word as the somewhat less idiomatic “the inert but not dead—just in suspended animation—body of a storyteller.” Interestingly, when Vanderhyden does choose to rephrase or intervene in the original, he often makes it sound even more exotic (he translates “soberbia”—a commonplace Spanish word for pride or arrogance—as “hubris,” or “cercanas”—“near”—as “proximal”). In other words, he seems to veer toward foreignization, preserving and at times even enhancing the original’s linguistic difference. In a story driven by literal and figurative alienness, this turns out to be a brilliant move—form’s subtle nod to content in the hands of a translator who, while duly respectful of Planet Fresán, is not afraid to leave a lasting footprint on its surface.
Josefina Massot was born and lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She studied Philosophy at Stanford University and worked for Cabinet Magazine and Lapham’s Quarterly in New York City, where she later served as a foreign correspondent for Argentine newspapers La Nueva and Perfil. She is an academic English editor for Scribbr and a Spanish-English translator for Dalkey Archive Press; her translation of C.E. Feiling’s novel El mal menor will be published in 2019. She is an Assistant Managing Editor for Asymptote.
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