[Graywolf Press; 2020]

At first glance, Percival Everett’s new novel, Telephone, shares little with the more renowned of his twenty-five books of fiction. The new novel does not offer much broad social commentary, as found in the satires Erasure and I Am Not Sidney Poitier. Its narrator is not a writer, artist, or philosopher, but a professor of geology. He is an academic, although his career is not obviously tied to the ideas of representation, language, and art that float through Everett’s previous work. Even his name, Zach Wells, lacks the signification that Erasure’s “Ellison” and I Am Not Sidney Poitier’s “Not Sidney Poitier” contain — though Wells does comment that “Wells” makes a good name for a geologist. As Telephone’s beleaguered narrator, he does share certain characteristics with other Everett protagonists — mainly that he is a mildly depressed academic with abstruse expertise and a love of wordplay — but this novel is concerned with matters close to home compared to Ellison’s satires which take aim at the culture at large, and so it seems to exist in a separate realm from those acclaimed works.

Telephone places Wells in a matrix of ordeals for which he is ill-equipped. These trying circumstances provide the novel with various narrative trails that only occasionally intersect: a student develops an annoying crush on Wells and has the boldness to pursue; a colleague whom he does not particularly care for seeks his help in securing tenure, although she does not seem to have done the work to justify tenure; secondhand clothes bought off Ebay arrive with messages written in Spanish: cries for help. Then there’s his daughter, Sarah, who after complaining about her vision, attends various doctors visits, which leads to a horrible diagnosis. And through it all, his marriage provides little comfort, often exacerbating his isolation and stress. His efforts to affect change prove fruitless. 

Part of the reason for Well’s ineffective action is his highly specific expertise in geology, which grants him few tools to combat the problems he faces. Everett underscores the limits of Wells’s knowledge by firstly highlighting the cave he’s an expert on, and then minimizes its importance through its name “Naught’s Cave,” which he makes a point of translating as “Nothing Cave.” That “Nothing” has become what Wells calls “my work, my focus, in some way my world”, brutally suggesting that he has dedicated his life to something too small to be of significance or use. Everett references Plato’s cave while discussing Wells’s, suggesting that Wells, like the people in Plato’s allegory, has been focused on a false reality. To heighten Wells’s seclusion, the reader learns that one of his friends had died years ago on the way up to the cave. He impugns himself by saying, “Asshole that I am, I have returned to the cave again and again and have thought of him only briefly each time. That tells you something, though it’s none too flattering.” After this realisation, though, he does nothing to change his actions, and the discussion of his studies is left as nothing but a rebuke of them.

Were Telephone about a hermit, Wells’s limited expertise and his detachment from others might be harmless, but he is a husband and a father, and a professor at a university whose bright-eyed twenty-somethings plot to reshape the world, while he has given up any hopes at stamping himself onto the world. At one point, students representing “The Students of Color Coalition” come to him, a black professor, and ask for his support in protesting the lack of black faculty on campus. Resigned to the state of things, Wells lectures them:

Understand me—I know racism is real. I’ve been arrested a couple of times in Arizona for simply driving while black. I’ve been shot at by some white supremacists while on a dig and worried that the last words I might hear in life would be “I got me one.” But I haven’t personally experienced it here, though I’m certain there’s some of it . . . I should probably be more political in my thinking and dealings with the school. But I’m not.

Like when he calls himself an asshole for not thinking enough about his dead friend, Wells once again chastises himself for his detachment, but does nothing about it. He waves the students off, adding them to the list of people he fails to help.

Similar to previous Everett protagonists, Wells displays apathetic behavior that masks strong opinions. Like Erasure’s Ellison, whose impassioned ideas on the pigeonholing of black writers leads him to write a satire that the public takes at face value, Wells takes an outwardly indifferent stance on much of what happens around him, but this results more from exhaustion and frustration than from a true lack of caring.  Everett most strongly displays Wells’s personal stakes through the depiction of his daughter’s illness and his caring but still futile response. Telephone establishes his close relationship with Sarah by showing their inside jokes and shared interests. They discuss the infinite monkey theorem, and he admits that monkeys might have been able to type Measure for Measure but never Macbeth. They pester his wife, Meg, about the distinction between a bandage and Band-Aid. Whenever giving the dog a treat, one of them makes a silly pun of “A Rathbone for Basil.” And she routinely beats him at chess. Their times together are the only times Wells seems happy and fully engaged with someone else, which makes her debilitation even more tragic. 

Whereas with his students Wells can’t bother to make even a symbolic gesture, with Sarah he tries desperately to make a difference and orchestrates a family trip to Paris, a longtime dream of Sarah’s. In Paris, he watches her delight in speaking the native language, consuming authentic pain au chocolat, and making frequent visits to the Louvre. Unfortunately, the trip ends with another instance of Wells’s ineffective action; after a brief separation from Sarah, he finds her across a crowd of people who are held in suspense by a gunman. When the man glances at Sarah from a distance, Wells’s fear and anger trigger him to rush and tackle him. With the help of the police, he disarms the man without shooting anyone, but afterwards he is berated by police: his reward a rough handcuffing and repeated cries of “bête” (beast). This example serves as an additional reminder that he is  not a man who makes things happen, but to whom things happen.

Back in California, Wells and Meg continue to try to cope with their daughter’s deterioration: he plays squash, goes to bars, and thinks about “analogous bullshit.” To observers, these activities might become signs that he has become as detached from his daughter’s condition as he was about the conditions for people of color on campus, but his sudden swerve to more drastic action disabuses the reader of that notion. These methods serve as nothing more than temporary distractions that do nothing to address his anger for what’s happening to his daughter and his aggrievement for being powerless to help her. Instead, he projects his desire to help his daughter onto people whose lives he might actually improve, and again he tries to impose his will on the world: after learning that his distressed colleague has done the work to merit tenure, he stages a haphazard effort to save her job; he then orders more clothing from online and receives more notes with his shirts, deciding to stake out its origins, in search of someone to save.

Wells’s more authentic and natural response to Sarah’s illness is to become as watchful and alert a reader of her actions as he is of the bones and fragments in Naught’s Cave. The illness forces Wells and his wife, Meg, a poet, to become uninformed interpreters of its progression in their daughter, as they begin to search Sarah’s behaviors and errors:

To leak a little urine was such a small loss of motor control. To repeat oneself was something I did every day, often several times. But each small thing was magnified, amplified for us — mere whispers were shouts; tiny flickers were blinding flashes. It was quite likely that we were also missing some symptoms altogether.

Through his and Meg’s wayward acts of interpretation, the novel recalls its title and the game of the same name in which a word or phrase passes from person to person, the original message slowly deteriorating as it goes along. While Well’s most desperate search for significance is with regards to  his daughter’s illness, it is not the only time he searches for meaning; such as, when he tries to decode his cave’s artifacts, and the messages that come with his clothes, as well as the various people who cross his path, from tattooed neo-Nazis to curious coeds. Since he’s a man who acts so little, reading and interpreting are his primary ways of engaging with his environs. 

The prevalence of interpretation suits a novel about a man whose actions bear little weight in the world. Similar to its most recent predecessor, So Much Blue, Telephone is primarily about a small family and, as with So Much Blue, it is a family story with various narrative threads woven together by a single motif: in the case of So Much Blue the motif is secrecy, and in Telephone, it is interpretation. For fans of Everett’s more satirical fictions, Telephone might seem like a wayward attempt at conventionality, but behind the homebound setting’s realist framing is a novel no less attuned to the culture around it and, despite its restraint, no less intelligent in its forms of representation, an accomplishment all the more impressive for working within the ostensible constraints of the domestic drama genre.

Sebastian Sarti is a writer living in New York.