In his latest novel, Telephone, Percival Everett deftly creates a stable family equilibrium that is thrown off-kilter by a powerful external force. As first-person narrator Zach Wells tells us early in the novel: “[t]hings developed, as they will, and usually when we speak of such development, ‘things’ means bad things. And so it was.”
This finely wrought novel of inexorable, spiraling decline is tinged with more than a wisp of hope that the same force that engenders such deterioration, as ineluctable as it is, can also generate at least one very good thing.
Wells is a professor of geology and an expert in deciphering bird bones deposited during geological ages past in a nearly inaccessible cave. His wife, Meg, is an English teacher and published poet and his daughter, Sarah, is a precocious 12-year-old who regularly vanquishes her dad at chess. All is well.
Excavate a bit, though, and there are fault lines. Zach is happy enough with his life, although he is thoroughly bored with his work. He is happy enough with his wife, although he admits that, but for the presence of Sarah, he and Meg might well have split.
Zach is thoroughly devoted to Sarah, in love with her clever banter, their taunting chess games, their frequent mountain hikes hoping in vain for a bear-sighting. He tells us that Sarah is his “reason for waking each day”, and that his only job in life is “to keep this creature alive, to keep this little bird breathing.”
It begins to feel like such total devotion may well be the fault line that augurs a coming earthquake, and so it is – in the form of Sarah’s escalating health crisis and the aftershocks that shear through the entire structure of this family’s life. During one of their chess games, Sarah makes the foreboding announcement that her father is habitually beaten because he hates losing pieces and adds, “[y]ou can’t protect everybody.” As Sarah’s deterioration unfolds, her parents become increasingly frightened, their relationship increasingly fraught. Zach, of course, can control none of it.
Instead, he finds distractions. He begins to spend evenings in his faculty office and then begins to spend evenings, and then afternoons, drinking in seedy bars, one such outing resulting in a bar fight. Around such distractions, there are scattered musings about death and philosophy and the meaning of life, about epistemology and God and dreaming. Humans dream, we are told, so that while we sleep “we know we’re not dead” – so we know that our self remains intact – but Zach dreams of his daughter losing her self, bit by bit.
And then come larger distractions. First, a flirty front-row student throws Zach sidelong glances, crosses her exposed legs in class and crosses his path in a bar and then in his tent on a geology field trip (engendering further dreams). A family trip to Paris ensues during which, in what might be considered a too obvious bit of foreshadowing, her parents lose Sarah in a crowd.
And finally, the biggest distraction. Zach orders a jacket online and finds a note in Spanish pinned inside the collar. Intrigued, he orders a shirt from the same source and finds a similar note in English: ‘Please help to us.’ As Sarah continues her increasingly rapid decline, he leaves her and Meg behind to travel to a remote New Mexico town that is the source of the notes.
He does so without an objective in mind except perhaps an inchoate urge toward exercising some semblance of control in the hope of doing something good. Here we find a counterpoint to the accelerating hopelessness that Zach has been experiencing as he, along with a small group of members of a local poetry club, concocts a risky plan, barely a plan, to attempt one very good thing.
In Telephone, Everett layers-in brushstrokes that lend authenticity to his tale. Zach’s competencies are exhibited through repeated references to the taxonomy of his bird-bone discoveries, phrases in Latin (and in German, taken from the works of Mahler), relevant interpretations of paintings hanging in the Louvre, coded chess moves and references to matters chromosomal.
Everett is adept at the vivid portrayal of the deterioration his protagonist experiences by exposing the details of each rung down the ladder without ever stepping over the line into the mawkish, the melodramatic, or the overwrought. The closest we are allowed to get is the poignant scene in which, while Zach is caring for Sarah, the bear that they had hoped to spy on their father-daughter hikes is finally spotted, by him, through Sarah’s window.
Telephone provides a case study of a family dynamic shaken by illness, of the attendant grief and loss, and of the opportunity to generate goodness in the face of catastrophe even if there is no possible return to the status quo ante. A timely lesson.