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  • Writer's pictureSusan Edsall

Telephone by Percival Everett

Telephone by Percival Everett
Telephone by Percival Everett


by Percival Everett

Telephone by Percival Everett is the third book by Everett that I've read. I can't believe I hadn't heard of him before this. But the beauty of this book is that in addition to his masterful writing and engaging storytelling, he assaults your laziness as a thinker and a reader without you being aware--until after the book ends. For me, I got hit three days later.

First the story. This is what the summary on Amazon: Zach Wells is a perpetually dissatisfied geologist-slash-paleobiologist. Expert in a very narrow area―the geological history of a cave forty-four meters above the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon―he is a laconic man who plays chess with his daughter, trades puns with his wife while she does yoga, and dodges committee work at the college where he teaches. After a field trip to the desert yields nothing more than a colleague with a tenure problem and a student with an unwelcome crush on him, Wells returns home to find his world crumbling. His daughter has lost her edge at chess, she has developed mysterious eye problems, and her memory has lost its grasp. Powerless in the face of his daughter’s slow deterioration, he finds a mysterious note asking for help tucked into the pocket of a jacket he’s ordered off eBay. Desperate for someone to save, he sets off to New Mexico in secret on a quixotic rescue mission. A deeply affecting story about the lengths to which loss and grief will drive us, Telephone is a Percival Everett novel we should have seen coming all along, one that will shake you to the core as it asks questions about the power of narrative to save.

“A deeply affecting story about the lengths to which loss and grief will drive us “ That is not what I think this book is about. At all. So isn't that interesting. And while it might be asking questions about the power of narrative to save, it seems to me that he's not so much asking questions as stating that narrative has the power to keep things from being saved. To screw everything up.

Second, the game. Everett has written three different version of this novel. People say “Oh! A choose your own adventure story!” Well, no. The adventure chooses you. You don't get to order a particular version. Your bookstore doesn't get to order two each of the three versions. It's all chance. The covers are almost the same. The only difference is of the three compasses on the cover, the compass in the upper right hand corner indicates a different direction depending on the version. So you can hunt through bookstores to find the NW version (I read the SE version), but it's all random.

From what I understand, each version takes off in a slightly different direction at some decision point in the story (or several decision points—I'm not sure because I can't find a NW or NE version!), but they all end the same way.

Then there's the title. People say “Oh! It's from that children's game!” Okay. Not a brilliant flash of insight. The question is why. Why does that matter? How does it relate in any way to this story? Trust me, it does.

Third, the set up. Everett starts with a Kierkegaard quote:

“I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations—one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do it—you will regret both.” Oh, Søren. He must have been so much fun to have over for dinner.

Then there's the first paragraph:

“People, and by people I mean them, never look for truth, they look for satisfaction. There is nothing worse, certain painful and deadly diseases notwithstanding, than an unsatisfactory piss-poor truth, whereas a satisfactory lie is all too easy to accept, even embrace, get cozy with. Like thoughts that carry with them a dimension of attendant thought, so actions have attendant actions, with unpredicted, unprompted intentions and results, good or bad, and things, things themselves, have attendant things in unforeseen perspectives and dimensions. And unsatisfactory truth? Like Banquo's ghost, such thoughts sit in the king's place, literary allusions being all the rage. Such thoughts. It is slavery that inaugurates the path to freedom.”

Fourth, the reader. It seems like a good story. All the way to the end (okay, the ending bugged me). And then three days later, on my morning walk, the story—with its ending—wouldn't let go of me, and I was suddenly slammed with what this book is about, what the ending means, why the three versions are important, why the title matters.

What an incredible book and feat. I had no choice but to go back and read the book again, dropping down into the dark thick of it.

So. I loved this book. I want to have dinner or lunch or coffee or ice cream with Percival Everett. He doesn't hedge.

You can buy Telephone at your local bookstore. If they don't have it in stock, order it from them (which version will you get????). Waiting five or six days to support your local bookstore is a small price to support that community treasure. If, inexplicably, you have no local bookstore, and you don't have it in you to start one, you can order it online at Indiebound and Amazon.


About Susan Edsall

Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >



“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.”

E.M. Forster

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