One needn’t have owned a Maserati from the 1980s to grasp the essential nature of entropy. Decay and unraveling are as much a part of nature as death, as landslides, as tornadoes, and yet our way of grasping the world is accretive. Accumulative. Or so it seems. Take libraries, for example, which are formed through subtraction as well as addition. Stacks be damned. The scriptorium at Alexandria once held nine volumes of poems by Sappho. Today, we are left with but one.
Living in a world built on erasure and entropy—on loss—while we need to love and come to conclusions creates in us a powerful desire for cohesion. One way to address this longing is in stories. But can we trust them? Here’s the existential dilemma at the heart of Percival Everett’s Telephone, a moving love letter to the reader and to anyone who has ever had to tell a person—say, a child, anyone beloved—truths that were untrue. You’re going to be OK.
How easily this book begins. On the surface, it feels familiar, as so many Everett books do in their opening pages: sometimes a western, sometimes a satire. Then slowly the form erodes to reveal something less stable, something mutable. An inner pulse. Thus we begin here in the garb of a campus novel. Zach Wells, our narrator, is a paleobiologist who teaches at a Los Angeles university. He is bored, his dog is growing fat, he teaches his courses half asleep. He and his wife, Meg, have begun to drift apart. Their daughter, Sarah, is the brilliant glue keeping them together.
Whereas most writers’ books escalate, Everett’s mutate, often right before our eyes, creating a dreamlike feel that is both pleasant and disquieting. In addition to writing stories and novels, and like Meg in this novel, Everett is a poet, and so his prose books also make full use of language’s most mysterious capabilities to produce effects. Repetitions, montaging, and echoes of words across Telephone create a field of sonic possibility. Into this charged zone spill seemingly tiny occurrences. Zach finds a note written in Spanish in a shirt he bought on eBay. His daughter flubs an easy move in their near-daily chess game. He has dreams of strange import.
Zach’s professional field of specialty involves the bones of dead birds found in caves. Using tools of study to measure rates of decay and the size of species, he can tell stories about what life around a cave might have been like, what would have lived there, and why. Snippets of his field research strobe the book’s progressions in the opening chapters like a darkly alluring chant. They simultaneously desensitize and resensitize the reader to encountering words in their most primal, categorical form: malleable units of knowing, detached from what they refer to.
Eventually, this patterning of incident and language creates a rich-enough dreamscape that the reader—like a dreamer—must begin interpreting. What is this all about? What is it that will grab this melancholic, somewhat-detached man and make him act? Gruff, sometimes laconic, and only recently awoken by the birth of his daughter, Zach is continually reminding the reader that he is a poor guide, even to his own emotions, which, as a scientist, he regards with a mixture of skepticism and shame, even when the worst possible thing is happening. “I suppose anytime someone is seeing a pediatric neurologist,” Zach says when an eyesight problem plaguing Sarah becomes hard to define, “it is given that there is an abundance of anxiety, and so our wait in the outer area was notably brief.”
An abstract description of the hospital is typical of Zach. One of the many greatnesses lurking in Telephone is how slowly, inexorably, this speech pattern is broken down by the seriousness of Sarah’s illness. Immediately, Zach and Meg face an almost unbearable question: What do they tell their daughter when a diagnosis comes? Almost prideful about his directness, Zach faces the choice of whether or not to lie. Surely, sometimes, a lie is a better story than the truth?
In recent American fiction, there are few books as perceptive, as agonizingly right about the weight of illness on a family as Telephone. When Sarah’s medical condition becomes clearer, the stress of it dilates the intimacy between Zach and Meg: Sometimes they touch; sometimes he drives downtown to drink alone in a skid row–adjacent dive bar. Sometimes he talks about his feelings. Sometimes he holds them in so that Meg doesn’t have to also carry them.
Telephone is more than a chronicle of their family, though. Read slowly, it dazzlingly captures another praxis in living: that of choice and randomness. To put it in terms of genetics and phenomenology: If our bodies are formed in code, what does this mean of our actions? Are we not also enacting the mixture of programming, biological and social, to which we’ve been exposed? In the novel, Zach, a former marine, finds, at first, that some manifestations of his former training allow him ways to battle back his grief: a bar fight, defusing a snake encounter in the desert.
But violence will not save their daughter, nor will heroics, or prayer—and besides, as Zach puts it, God doesn’t care. So what can Zach do? It depends, in a way, on what he has done. Three versions of this book exist. Each set of decisions leads to a slightly different book, a slightly different set of possibilities, a different meaning of the title. In this way, the novel is a little like the game of telephone, in which, as a message is passed from listener to listener, at each stage it becomes something else.
Late in my version, Zach has decided that there’s a way to benignly redirect this linguistic mutation—entropic or otherwise—by intervening in another catastrophe: the one the strange message he found in his shirt, and others that followed, hinted at. It does not spoil the book to say that the predicament he finds involves a girl in a situation just as dire as the one facing his daughter. “When she was much younger,” Zach remembers earlier in the book, “Sarah wondered aloud whether we could climb into the fog and clear it away like cobwebs.” Who would say no to such a question?
Join us on May 18 at 5 p.m., when Everett will appear in conversation with the evening’s guest host, Anita Felicelli, and special guest Aimee Bender to discuss Telephone. Please visit the Alta Clubhouse to talk about the book with your fellow California Book Club members. Register for the Zoom conversation here.