Percival Everett and the Ambiguities of Experience

In this newsletter, we introduce Percival Everett’s novel Telephone, the May California Book Club selection.

percival everett, novelist, telephone, fiction
Dustin Snipes

After finishing novelist Percival Everett’s comic novel I Am Not Sidney Poitier in 2010, the year after it came out, I began devouring his back catalog from the publisher Graywolf Press. I couldn’t stop. Why did I not know of this writer, whose every novel (not to mention his story collection Half an Inch of Water) felt original and different? I asked myself. It was, frankly, difficult to stay abreast of his titles, as they came out, seemingly, every year. Much of his work was playful and slightly jokey, yet the undercurrent was one of dead seriousness—the bullshit detector’s Let’s get down to the real stuff; don’t even try to blow smoke at me.

A few years ago, in my fandom, I started keeping track of the elements that crossed over the last several I’d read. There had to be a pattern of obsessions or curiosity, perhaps several patterns, in what seemed Everett’s shockingly wide varieties of narrative experience—that’s the nature, I believe, of artistic impulses. They keep bubbling up. And some motifs do recur in Everett’s books; there are little spots where one fictional dream bleeds into others. The edges between books are sometimes blurry in a given novel’s bookending precursor and the book that follows it. It’s as if he hasn’t quite exorcised an idea in the one, and so a trace of it must appear in the next.

Common motifs and elements over the past several years of his work include dreams; dogs; peripatetic, ruminative, analytical, and nerdy first-person narrators; race; stereotypes; logical fallacies; analogies; and language games. Repeatedly, Everett plays with matching language to experience or, and this is important, not matching it—not or no thing or nothingness, from the Old English “nan thing,” is an indispensable part of many of these novels. His style of prose is transparent, but the method of thinking is frequently analogical; that is, his texts often make hay out of surface commonalities between things we think of, in our language, as different. Too, there is an unusually strong plotted-ness to his novels, even as they, frequently, contend with questions commonly asked in continental philosophy departments.

When I first started reading his work, Everett called to mind for me David Markson, a novelist underrecognized in his own lifetime, whose body of work can be fairly evenly divided into two groups: genre-dependent novels (crime novels and an anti-western) and nonlinear, assemblage-composed experimental books. Like Markson, I noted, Everett is a master of conjuring momentum in a plot, gathering interest around narrative events so that in the broader whole of his slim books, they build toward a traditional climax, but he’s equally interested in manipulating language for the purpose of considering language—and nescience—the typical mode of postmodernists.

As Everett’s list has grown over the past decade, however—he’s got more than 30 books to his name—a different movement has developed, a kind of blue period. He’s superfused these two modes—traditional plot and experimental play—with an unrivaled artistic and zany intensity to produce novels that are not easily unhooked from one another according to the rough Markson modes I described above, but rather, inexplicably, working in tandem.

Telephone, the California Book Club selection for May, is one of Everett’s most gorgeously fluid novels, calibrating a register between the delicate precision of contemporary domestic drama and the dry, knowing turns of political mystery fiction. It focuses on a cautious father whose daughter has developed a terminal neurological illness, Batten disease, and who does everything he can to get right with the horror of that, attempting to save some unknown women, but throughout the text, facts about bones, and then artwork, intervene. They don’t overwhelm or produce slack in the narrative wire pulled taut, but the texture differs from that of most plotty novels.

Yet even here, with a narrator who studies bones and is less capable with people, you can feel Everett’s recurring fascination with the slippages in language, how sentences can be constructed, or not, to impose a single, unified meaning for a reader. Language is not structure, not bones for Everett—it is a surfacey stuff, like paint, that you can shift around to create other moods and meanings. But a desire for the authentic, the non-smoke, the essential, occurs at a sentence level in each of Everett’s novels in ways that might seem trivial but reveal nuances in his different narrators.

Zach Wells, the narrator of Telephone, tells us, “My tavern of choice, a loose term—choice, not tavern—was on Fourth Street just east of Spring.” Zach hopes to get at something real, hence his study of what is timeless and lasting—bones and mortality. Similarly, early in So Much Blue, the narrator, a painter who is nonetheless preoccupied by naming paint colors, says, “There is much talk or chatter, prattling, in the so-called art world (which is more doubtful, art or world?) about my secret painting.”

In I Am Not Sidney Poitier, the narrator’s name, Not Sidney—in a move that builds in nothingness—provides a fair number of humorous bits. However, Dr. No, Everett’s most recent work, is told by a perhaps even goofier narrator, who is partly constructed through his inattention to linguistic slippage.

No one is more likely to tell you language is inadequate or to call your attention to its ambiguities than a smart, prolific writer.

In Telephone, as in other books, Everett toggles between extremes of logic—or more specifically, its limits—and dream states, conditions of un-wakening full of intuitive associations that are often posed as the opposite of the rational and reasonable. Reading this novel, and others, the reader can sense the structuralist’s organizational drive to draw heavy lines between different things breaking down under the heat of that drive and the impulse toward poststructuralism taking over. Boiling things down, trying to get them to their bones, can only ever, and inevitably, result in nonsense—reality is too complex for language to ever be able to adequately hold it.

It’s a high-wire act: within the later Everett novels, any one pole works only to the extent that its opposite does, too. His novels do what novels do best: you can’t readily pull from them a thesis or even an artist’s statement. Instead, they depend on pulling taut an acrobatic line from one pole to another, maintaining tension. And how to reconcile the narrator of Erasure, a provocative novel of voices that lambasts the demands placed on Black authors to perform their race, with the characters of The Trees, an extremely broad anti-lynching satire in which race is inescapable, with a novel like Telephone, in which the narrator is Black but says that he doesn’t think too much about it until confronted with a neo-Nazi bunch? Perhaps there isn’t a way, and it’s the quality of getting deep inside the head of a particular narrator that makes each novel feel new. Some artists have a totalitarian bent in the systems that make up their novels—their narrators express the same sorts of emotions and worldviews, and the same root motivations recur, as if to prove a thesis statement. Not Everett.

I envy you if you are encountering Everett’s inventive work for the first time—there are so many books left for you to read. Telephone is one of the more serious and melancholy, contending as it does with emotionally charged questions of mortality, the overwhelming transience of life, that all things, all beautiful things, pass, and that even this moment, reading this novel that feels so timeless in its considerations as you move through it, will end.•

Join us on May 18 at 5 p.m., when Everett will appear in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest to discuss Telephone. Please visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss the book with your fellow California Book Club members. Register for the Zoom conversation here.


percival everett, telephone, novel
Graywolf Press


Read the opening pages of Everett’s Telephone. —Alta

claudia rankine, helga davis


If you missed the April CBC event with Claudia Rankine about Citizen: An American Lyric, you can still watch it or read a recap. —Alta

monsters a fans dilemma, claire dederer


Writer and artist Jackie DesForges reviews Claire Dederer’s Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma. —Alta

land of milk and honey, c pam zhang
Penguin Randomhouse


In September, the first CBC author, C Pam Zhang, has her second novel coming out, Land of Milk and Honey. It can be preordered. —Penguin Random House

book ban
Adobe Stock


The next target of book-banning efforts—and a potential violation of First Amendment rights—is book publishers. —EveryLibrary

how bb king and los angeles helped me embrace my multiethnic romani identity, oksana marafioti
Elijah Vardo


Memoirist Oksana Marafioti (American Gypsy) writes about growing up multiethnically Romani as an immigrant from Russia in Los Angeles. —Los Angeles Times

california book club bookplates

Alta’s California Book Club email newsletter is published weekly. Sign up for free and you also will receive four custom-designed bookplates.


Anita Felicelli, Alta Journal’s California Book Club editor, is the author of the novel Chimerica and Love Songs for a Lost Continent, a short story collection.
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below