Soon after his daughter is diagnosed with an incurable illness, laconic university professor Zach Wells finds a note begging for help in the pocket of a jacket bought on Ebay. Pushed towards heroism by helplessness and grief, Zach sets out to solve the mystery.
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.