Why You Should Read This: ‘Telephone’

Percival Everett’s innovative novel is the California Book Club’s May 2023 selection.

telephone, percival everett

In his novel Telephone, Percival Everett embraced the mutability of narrative. How? By publishing three versions, each distinct in certain small but noticeable ways. Originally, the intention was to keep this information in the background, but the pandemic—the book, or books, came out in the spring of 2020—altered that plan. “With the strangeness with the COVID-19 isolation,” Everett told the New York Times, “it was a decision in the house to do the reveal earlier than later.” This may be the only time the author has found himself behind the curve.

This article appears in Issue 23 of Alta Journal.

Everett, after all, is among our most unpredictable writers, an innovator in the most capacious sense. During a career spanning more than 30 books, he has exuberantly defied expectations, of his readers and of himself. His most recent novel, Dr. No, frames a meditation on nothingness through the lens of a James Bond parody. The Trees, which came out in 2021, is both a searing examination of lynching and its legacy and an over-the-top detective story that has its roots in the 1955 murder of Emmett Till. Then there is 2001’s Erasure, in which a professor named Thelonious Ellison (the names are intentionally allusive) is told his work isn’t Black enough, which leads him to write a novel based on, among other sources, Richard Wright’s Native Son. That work, Ma Pafology, is included in its entirety in Erasure, functioning as send-up as well as critique of a culture consumed with easy answers to complex realities.

A similar sense of inquiry motivates Telephone. Narrated by Zach Wells, another professor (of geology this time), the book is a reflection on transience and loss. Such elements imbue the caves where Zach performs his research, and they infiltrate his home life when his adolescent daughter, Sarah, is diagnosed with Batten disease, a degenerative disorder that is fatal, but not before it strips away cognition and memory.

Here, we see the logic behind releasing three iterations of the narrative, since Zach is confronting not only conditionality but also powerlessness. He can do nothing to help his daughter; he can do nothing to help himself. Meanwhile, the story develops in its multiple directions like a game of telephone. Part of this is ontological; like all of us, Zach lives at the mercy of circumstance. But even more, Everett suggests, we must remain present and engaged. “People, and by people I mean them,” he writes, “never look for truth, they look for satisfaction. There is nothing worse, certain painful and deadly diseases notwithstanding, than an unsatisfactory, piss-poor truth, whereas a satisfactory lie is all too easy to accept.”

How much do I love this observation? It feels right, for one thing, and the ruthlessness gets to the center of Everett’s work. The idea of three variants of the same narrative may seem, on the surface, like a gimmick, but in fact it’s a way of asking necessary questions, not least by decentering Everett’s own authority. All truth, in other words, is unsatisfactory. It’s what we do with it that counts.•

Graywolf Press


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David L Ulin is Alta Journal’s books editor.
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