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.