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...Telephone is one of these standouts ... 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.
Telephone...is both utterly surprising and completely in character ... Having read all three versions, I can say without divulging spoilers that the stories diverge at three different fulcrum points, in which thoughts either do or do not lead to actions, plans then are or are not followed to completion. What may flummox readers is not knowing whether these choices make any difference ... There are pleasures and ramifications in Telephone beyond the question of whether his very high-concept gambit will pay off. They begin with the opening rant, which feels almost nauseatingly timely ... What Everett’s achingly beautiful prose adds to the intellectual dilemma—a classic 'should I stay or should I go'—is to underscore the role of emotions in limiting our free will ... Like watching a skilled juggler execute a six-ball fountain, the experience of reading Telephone is astonishing.
Telephone is concerned with systems of meaning and communication—how they can be constructed and derailed. And like any serious novel, it’s an experiment with these systems, a game that tests its own rules as it’s played. The text is pockmarked with untranslated phrases in Latin, French, and German; with descriptions of Zach’s arcane professional findings; and with series of chess moves ... These are clues as to how to read the story, yet they’re also, more affectingly, the tools Zach is using to try to make sense of and cope with what has happened to him—and none of them is remotely adequate to the task. The novel hints that whether one’s life is a domestic tragedy or a political thriller may depend mainly on emphasis, on how you interpret the world and which parts of it you pay attention to ... Zach is confronting forms of pain and injustice too vast to be understood. Like the events it mentions, the passage is hard to digest. Grief and guilt are like that, too.
God bless Percival Everett, whose dozens of idiosyncratic books demonstrate a majestic indifference to literary trends, the market or his critics ... The unknown both haunts and inspires Mr. Everett’s books, and while the plot of Telephone may be straightforward, the world it depicts is no less bewildering.
This finely wrought novel of inexorable, spiraling decline is tinged with more than a wisp of hope that the same force that engenders such deterioration, as ineluctable as it is, can also generate at least one very good thing ... Everett is adept at the vivid portrayal of the deterioration his protagonist experiences by exposing the details of each rung down the ladder without ever stepping over the line into the mawkish, the melodramatic, or the overwrought ... Telephone provides a case study of a family dynamic shaken by illness, of the attendant grief and loss, and of the opportunity to generate goodness in the face of catastrophe even if there is no possible return to the status quo ante. A timely lesson.
Reading Everett is usually an experience of reckoning, and not just for a protagonist against the ugliness his life has served him up, but a reckoning, also, for a reader in her oh-so-comfy chair, the unnerving drama of the story reaching out and grabbing her by her face, You. You think you know best, you think you’d do it different, you think you’d know? You know nothing. There is always a hugely satisfying clarity to Everett’s work, a clearing out of cant and ideology and best intentions, and a showing of the cool hard landscape of what is. There is hardly a writer in the language I respect more than Percival Everett, and it’s because of this cold bead. He has the intellectual and aesthetic agility to just blow us out of the water, but he does the more lasting, though perhaps crueler, more respectful thing of putting us at the center of an extremity, calling into question our own bustling officious ideas of agency, the gun just out of sight ... To say I emerge a more honest person after reading Everett is an understatement, and it’s his gift to us, but at what cost? Because that’s another reckoning, how an author gets toted up, thought of, regarded, how he continues to abide knowing what he knows about his work from others. One feels so often a disconcerting closeness when reading Everett’s prose, an interrogatory intimacy. That’s not a game of telephone, that’s one call to one ear, no interference, no static, no more salacious version to be gotten elsewhere; the reader just has to accept the call, to listen.
It is taut, affecting and typically idiosyncratic. At its heart is the wrenching story of a middle-aged couple dealing with the sudden onset of their adolescent daughter’s degenerative illness. But it is also a campus novel and a Trump-era, borderland thriller, and these unlikely modulations cohere in compelling fashion ... one of the author’s best novels, amid a welter of competition. It should be widely read. And so, more generally, should Percival Everett.
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.
There is no such thing as a typical Percival Everett novel; he’s too varied in his styles, too eclectic in his interests ... But there is a typical Everett narrator: gruff, a little depressed, good at his job, not that good at life. Wells fits this type perfectly ... though the laughs are quieter here than in Everett’s previous novels, there are still some good bits. This is not insignificant: a joke laughs back at the void, puts something where there was naught ... At a certain level, Telephone tells a very simple story driven by a very simple question: How does a man who is not particularly happy, but not particularly unhappy, respond to unthinkable grief? But it weaves a number of subplots around this tragic center.
Everett...the author of biting satirical comedy, dark thrillers, and literary reworkings of Greek myth, gifts us with his most heartfelt, nakedly emotional story yet ... Everett has created an exquisite portrait of grief and one man’s search for meaning in the face of unimaginable loss.
It's hard for the reader to find it interesting to be living inside Zach's head, since Zach doesn't find it very interesting. So, this is really a story about storytelling: the stories we tell ourselves, the way we shape them, and the way they shape our lives ... This is a novel that doesn't really try to make you believe in it, or in much of anything, including cause and effect.
...affecting if uneven... The juggling act Everett must maintain to keep the book coherent leads to some unsatisfying and rushed conclusions, yet his greatest success is not in the story but in the portrait of a man pushed by grief toward irrationality. Despite its bumps, this is a spellbinding, heartbreaking tale.