Knight Takes Despair

In this newsletter, we consider author Percival Everett’s references to chess moves in May’s CBC selection, the novel Telephone.

percival everett, telephone, novel, california book club, life is a game
Dustin Snipes

It can be convenient for readers to ignore epiphanies that exist in an otherwise morally ambivalent novel, especially those epiphanies that seem almost accidental. Percival Everett’s Telephone, this month’s California Book Club selection, however, forces one to consider the idea that life is a game, one that must be played courageously in the moment.

It’s not that Everett intended to impart a message, or that the book’s protagonist, a geology professor named Zach Wells, preaches anything to this point; on the contrary, Zach does not know what to do when faced with awful circumstances. And when he learns that his preteen daughter, Sarah, suffers from Batten disease, a genetic disorder that will strip away her vision, motor skills, and memory before claiming her life, Zach responds in a series of unpredictable ways.

Zach recognizes that lying to his wife about having to work on campus and going to taverns instead is not healthy behavior. He understands that kissing a coworker will not lead to anything meaningful. And he certainly knows that responding to a mysterious note tucked into the collar of a shirt he purchased online will not help his daughter’s condition, but when he learns that the note may have been sent by a woman who has been trafficked, Zach acts with resolve.

That last action, despite his good intentions, is most likely a distraction from his grief. Instead of withering away or hiding in sorrow, Zach strikes back with a move. It may not be the best move, but it is a good move.

The framing for his actions is, of course, the chess games that Zach plays with Sarah, a chess prodigy. In fact, Zach first notices that Sarah’s mental focus has diminished when he captures her knight with a “hardly difficult-to-spot bishop.” Since Sarah is a much better player than he is, Zach grows suspicious, and soon, she begins to exhibit other disconcerting symptoms. Yet, even as her mental abilities deteriorate, father and daughter still pick up their pieces and battle over the board. What else can they do besides contemplate their game together?

Faced with a decision to help women trafficked and in trouble in New Mexico, far from his Altadena, California, home, or to go through the motions of his life without purpose, Zach chooses the former. Everett never states whether this is a wise decision, and even suggests that it may have been selfish, as Zach’s wife is then constrained, caring for their sick daughter alone. However, Zach’s vigilantism in New Mexico forces him to be in the present, something that chess requires of its players. Once he starts trying to save the women, Zach changes, and so does the novel.

Until this point in the story, the names of fossils (mostly) serve as dividers, breaking up specific passages, each of which sets a particular mood around an action Zach takes or an environment he occupies. When Zach chooses to engage with the present, the names of fossils are replaced with chess moves: “Rxe4 gxf3.” This move, gxf3, may seem inconsequential to the casual chess player, as it signifies one pawn taking another, but for students of the game, this simple attack is an early attempt to seize control of the middle of the board—where most games are eventually decided; it can also open up an eventual attack on the opponent’s kingside. It represents a small move, but one in which Zach goes on the offensive. Using chess moves to signpost the plot suggests that what seem to be asides are imbued with meaning. Indeed, once the narrative incorporates chess moves, Zach shifts his focus from despair and onto the act of rescuing others. Movement has occurred: Zach, who has previously been passive, is taking action to play his life.

Zach’s decision to act courageously to help others promises hope, if not for his daughter then for himself. This may be the only lesson he learns from what she is going through.

Sarah and I sat down to complete our game. I felt little hope for myself. I loved the bloodthirsty look in her eyes.

“You are a mean person.”

“I know.”

Rxe5 fxg3


If life is a game, it cannot be won. This does not mean that our actions lack meaning. What seems to matter is that we perform them bravely—as if the end is not coming.•

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


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


Ajay Orona is an associate editor at Alta Journal.
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