He Can’t Save His Daughter. Can He Save Himself?

By Percival Everett

I happily read whatever Percival Everett writes — over 30 books, to date — not because I will assuredly love every single effort, but because the books always feel like an encounter with substantive, playful thinking. Sometimes, almost indifferently, one of the novels turns out to be truly exceptional and memorable, and confuses me in the best possible way — in the way that makes it endure in my mind, so that I find I’m still thinking about it in an idle moment on a subway, or while walking up stairs. Everett’s most recent novel, “Telephone,” is one of these standouts.

“Telephone” is narrated by Zach Wells, a “geologist-slash-paleobiologist,” former Marine, son of a man who committed suicide and father to a girl named Sarah. He likes to order used clothes online. In the pocket of a field jacket, he finds a note that reads “Ayúdame.” That little cry for help, or joke, stays in the back of his mind.

Wells tends toward melancholy even when life is going well for him, but he also tempers his melancholy by having fun stating it. “Some people are just no good at being happy,” he says. “And by some people I mean me.” Reliable reliefs from pain take the form of logic and language games, and also love for Sarah, with whom Wells often plays chess and cracks jokes.

The research Wells does involves studying caves. He can read the stories in bones and rocks. Stories, in that sly way, are his thing, and in his daily life he’s not averse to mussing around with geological terms like “hornfels” and “gneiss.” He talks about a potential course on karst at enough length that it begins to feel like a term invented by philosophers. But what little light does peek through his melancholy affect is eclipsed by a tragedy that brings melodically horrible terms like “vacuolated lymphocytes” into his life. His daughter uncharacteristically misses a move in chess; it proves the first clue toward discovering that Sarah has a fatal, degenerative disorder, Batten disease, which manifests in small seizures that first appear as brief space-outs.

Wells also spaces out, does more of it than ever. Small exits from the excruciating present tense become habitual. He slips out of his house more often; he has little reveries that at first seem contiguous with the real. He can’t save his daughter, but he becomes involved in trying to save his colleague’s tenure application. Even that doesn’t go well. He finds more notes asking for help in the clothes he orders. Then we read that he’s off to New Mexico in an attempt to rescue a group of women he believes to be the source of the pleas. He needs to save someone.

He also plain old dreams. “As I fell asleep, I knew I would dream, and I dreamed first that I knew why I dreamed, why humans dream,” he says. “We dream, quite simply, so we know we’re not dead.” Wells as a narrator is drawn to certain logical shapes, to nested thoughts, eddies of thought. Declarations are made with the charisma of certainty — even as certainties wobble or fall. Ultimately, all of what Wells says reads as a whistling in the dark to distract from a terrible, inarguable mortality.

“Would that my daughter could have clawed her way back or that I could have rescued her, but no such thing was possible,” Wells observes, after remembering how his daughter had worked so hard to develop herself as a chess player. “This thinking consumed me, was always with me, and it not only threatened to, but did pull me down to a dark place, a place that I secretly began to recognize as a safe harbor.”

A long wander in the desert trying to save the women constitutes most of the final third of the book — the final third of the copy I read, that is. After finishing this review, I learned that there are three different versions of the novel, a secret mischief that suits its forking paths.

In my version, the way that even the darkest of stories serves as a sanctuary for Wells is surprising and moving. Everett pulls off a gently tremendous technical feat with the accumulated little slips out of the present situation. Each reader will make of her version of the ending what she will. For this reader, the reveries and exits accumulated such that the final and longest slide into the wilderness made the turn to the closing pages sad, affecting and marvelous.

The article was originally published by Newyorktimes