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Everett Telephone

In Percival Everett’s latest novel Telephone (Graywolf, 2020), our narrator, Zach Wells, is a professor of geology and paleobiology. He knows a lot about fossils and caves, “especially the bones of creatures left a long, long time ago,” but he admits he’s not very engaged with the present moment. He tends to gravitate toward grand philosophical pronouncements, but usually fails to consider the little moral issues that pop up every day. He has basically lived his life safely and without much passion or introspection and now he’s depressed and has even had the occasional thought of suicide.

So what if I was not happy? My happiness was overrated. My daughter was happy. My wife was unworried. But I moved through my life with caution, and caution in love is the most fatal to true happiness.

He’s also African American, although completely apolitical. During a campus protest over the police shooting of a Black teenager, several Black students come to his office. “We were wondering if you would join us, talk to us at a meeting tonight.”

“Who is ‘us’?” Zach asks. He explains that he’s never felt discriminated against at this university and he won’t join their protest. “I just crawl into caves and find fossils and then identify them. I am a scientist. I should probably be more political in my thinking and dealings with the school. But I’m not.”

Then Zach and his wife learn that their daughter has a rare and incurable genetic defect that will kill her within a few years and will slowly take away her speech and motor skills in the meantime. This also threatens their marriage and Zach begins to spend long periods sitting in his office or at a campus bar. He becomes lost in a despair that leads him down to “a dark place, a place that I secretly began to recognize as a safe harbor.” And that safe harbor is actually the guilt in knowing that death is coming for his daughter, not for him. “Guilt,” he admits, “is a terrible thing.”

But it’s something trivial that finally drives Zach out of his funk and into action. He buys a jacket on eBay and when it arrives there is a note inside, written in Spanish, that reads “Help me.” Curious, he buys a shirt from the same seller and inside is another note. “Please Help to Us.” He buys another shirt. “Help us. They will not let us go.” The packages all originate from a small town in New Mexico and Zach begins to imagine that somewhere in the desert there are women being held in captivity, repairing used clothing to be sold on eBay. Perhaps these are some of the woman that are missing from Ciudad Júarez, Mexico. He decides that he must investigate. If he can’t save his daughter from her imminent death, perhaps he can help these women.

I knew absolutely nothing, but the notes were real, felt heavy in my hand, meaningful. This feeling, of course, fed my need to know something, anything at all, all the business with my child being nothing but questions. The nagging inquiry at the end of this red herring of a rainbow, though undeniably just another distraction, was epistemological. When intellectuals get scared, they run to fundamental philosophical problems: What is goodness What is beauty? What is it to know a thing? About knowing, I was not so much interested in whether I could know some thing but in what kind of thing I could know. I knew my cryptic notes were real, but I could not know what they meant, or whether they meant.

Throughout Telephone, Everett remains scrupulously non-judgemental about Zach. He doesn’t guide the reader toward any opinion of Zach. Zach might be worried about the “profound and yawning dullness” of his life, he doesn’t have many moralizing afterthoughts or pangs of guilt when he rebuffs the Black protesters or abandons his family in order to spend weeks searching the desert. The result is that the burden of worrying seems to shift to the reader. I found myself puzzling over these things. Why won’t Zach feel more sympathetic to the Black protesters? Why doesn’t he tell his wife why he’s going to New Mexico? What if his daughter dies while he is away scouting the desert for slave laborers? Zach may think he is the kind of narrator who confesses all to his reader, but a crucial part of him remains a mystery even to himself.

In the end, Zach leaves his wife and daughter behind to go out on his Quixotic search. But he has dedicated himself and his cause to his daughter. “I tried to tell my daughter, while she could understand, that women are hunted in this world.” He thinks of Ciudad Júarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, where hundreds of women have been “pursued, raped, imprisoned, tortured, and killed” over some twenty years or so.

The numbers were so very large, obscene, fescennine. Olga Perez. Hundreds of women have no name. Edith Longoria. Hundreds of women have no face. Guadalupe de la Rosa. Names. Name. Maria Najera. It was so uncomplicated, safe, simple to talk about numbers in El Paso, a world away. Nobody misses five hundred people. Nobody misses one hundred people. In Juárez, it was one. One daughter. One friend. One face. One name. Somebody misses one person.

This is what Everett does so well. He takes a simple scenario and turns it into a story that suddenly quivers with moral ramifications, forcing the reader to become uncomfortable enough to start asking deep questions. And there aren’t any easy answers.

If you need any further proof, it turns out that Percival Everett had one last trick up his sleeve. He wrote three completely different versions of Telephone, each with a different ending and each book has been published with a slightly different cover. There’s a recently recorded conversation with Everett over at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Take a listen.

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. Excellently constructed article, Terry. I’ve been incredibly fond of the subtleties of Percival Everett since Erasure, though I’m in a rather gloomy state with this release. They don’t sell the physical book in Portugal, thus, I can’t have access to all versions of it. And I can’t seem to figure out if you can manipulate the Kindle version or not in order to have access to all different versions.

    July 14, 2020
  2. Thanks, João-Maria, I’m not sure how one would get all three copies unless you had access to a really large bookstore that sold multiple copies – like one in New York City. Even the publisher doesn’t mention the three versions on their website! This is when you need the personal help of a great bookseller.

    I already have two more books by Everett to read soon, including Erasure.

    July 14, 2020
  3. Seems like a neat trick, publishing “one” novel with “three” distinct endings. I must admit I’m tempted. If the illustration at the top of this post is supposed to be the three covers, I can’t spot any difference at all!

    July 15, 2020
    • The colors and position of the arrow in the compass in the red circle differ in each version. It took me ages to find this.

      July 15, 2020
      • Now you mention it, it’s so obvious!

        July 15, 2020
      • By the way, I’m really enjoying what you are doing in your blog recently!

        July 15, 2020
      • Thank you. :)

        July 15, 2020
  4. If that was addressed to me, thank you. :)

    July 15, 2020
    • Yes, that was meant to be addressed to you. I erased the old comment and redirected it so that it is now a reply to you. What you are doing is really original and very timely. Thanks. Here’s the link for anyone wondering:

      July 15, 2020
  5. aileverte #

    I just ordered a copy of Telephone — wonder which one I’ll get. I got curious about the alternative endings & the cover designs: here is one reader who purchased all 3 copies: — he says that the copies differ by the color of the Greywolf Press logo on the spine. But what are the differences on the front covers? One has the top compass needle pointing in a different direction, but what is the difference between the other two? I feel like I’m failing the spot the difference test :-)

    Although in a different genre this reminds of Milorad Pavic’s male and female editions of the Dictionary of Khazars (if you are not familiar with this book, do find the original hardcover edition). More recently, Jacques Roubaud published a book with 5 completely different covers — Ode à la ligne 29 des autobus parisiens — the bus route which goes right by his apartment in the Marais. Then a few years later, he published Tokyo Infra-ordinaire, on the Tokyo subway, with 4 different covers, my favorite featuring a Japanese toilet ( The text of Roubaud’s books is the same though.


    December 17, 2020
    • The differences are always with the compass in the reddish circle. In one instance, the red and blue colors of the compass pointer are reversed – blue at top instead of bottom. Happy holidays! 2021 promises to be better.

      December 17, 2020
      • aileverte #

        Happy 2021! Off to a bad start, but there is hope!

        My copy of Telephone finally arrived (mail travels circuitous routes these days). It appears the easiest way to differentiate which version one is reading is to look at the printer’s key on the copyright page (the “number line”). At the end of the row of digits, there is a letter. Mine is B. The preview version on appears to be C.

        January 12, 2021
  6. Happy new year to you! You are right! My copy of Telephone has an ‘A’ at the end of the printer’s key. I hadn’t noticed that. Be well. Winter is half over. Inauguration is getting close.

    January 12, 2021
  7. aileverte #

    Terry, so I have figured out something interesting about the chess game. [Sorry for such a lengthy comment.] Turns out the moves are the same both A and B versions, and it’s all a single game.

    So the first six moves are set out in between paragraphs. I’ve numbered them below through the end of the game. White always starts, so what you get is a pair White + Black move.

    1. d4 Nf6
    2. Nf3 b6
    3. c4 e6
    4. Nc3 Bb7
    5. Bg5 Bb4
    6. e3 h6

    So far so good. On p. 83, we learn that Sarah makes the first move. So she is WHITE, and Zach is BLACK. The text repeats the first move, to indicate the game has begun in the narrative. And then it says, “a couple moves later” — “a couple” being actually five, because next comes move 7.

    7. Bh4 c5
    8. Bd3 Bxc3

    Here black Bishop takes white kNight at c3. But here something funny happens: There is a missing move: bxc3 = white pawn takes black bishop at c3 (the same bishop that had just moved, has now silently disappeared off the board). So the complete move 9 looks like this:

    9. [bxc3] d6
    10. 0-0 Nbd7
    11. Nd2 Qc7
    12. Qc2 g5
    13. Bg3 h5
    14. Be4 h4
    15. Bxb7 Qxb7
    16. Bxd6 Qxc6
    17. Be5 h3
    18. gxh3 Rxh3
    19. Bg3 O-O-O
    20. e4 e5
    21. d5 Qd6
    22. Qa4 Kb7
    23. Rad1 Nb8
    24. Nf3 Nxe4
    25. Qc2 f5
    26. Rfe1 g4
    27. Rxe4 gxf3
    28. Ree1 f4
    29. Qf5 Rdh8
    30. Rxe5 fxg3
    31. Re6 Rxh2

    Now here is the really funny part. On the board, it’s the BLACKS that win: the white king is cornered by the Rook that in move 31. took white pawn at H2. (The rest of the game is obvious: if the King takes the Rook, it will be taken by the pawn that sits at G3. if the king moves back, say to F1, then the Rook will move to H1 and then the king is wide open: it can only move to G1 to be taken by the Rook or to E1, to be taken by the rook.) Since Sarah WINS, and she started out playing WHITE, where did they flip the board?

    So there is more to the game than meets the eye: there is the hidden move — an absence (whose? the player’s or the reader’s … although it actually matters little for the outcome of the game, the pawn at C3 does not move again) and the fact that father and daughter change sides somewhere, when we’re not looking. Maybe around move 16, and the error is a tipoff: the piece moves into a blank space but the apparently mistaken transcription signals that they are taking up someone else’s space? And just before that move, Zach says: “[The world] is always changing. Sometimes it takes millions of years to see it, sometimes seconds.” | “Us, too?” Sarah asked. | “Us too.”

    The game, as it turns out, is also a historical game — Nenarokhov vs. Alekhine, Moscow, 1915.

    There is something very Nabokovian about this.

    January 26, 2021
  8. Ela, What you have discovered seems nothing short of amazing! Is this Everett’s very subtle way of saying that Zach finally sees things through his daughter’s eyes? About a month after I wrote my post on Telephone, David Lerner Schwartz wrote a piece in LitHub detailing many of the changes between the three versions. He used a PDF comparison tool to suss out the differences. I’m thinking this is worth a follow-up post. What do you think? Would you guest write it?

    January 26, 2021

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