“I hated the notion of redemption. But here I was in the world, in this world. I would do something.” We encounter these words late in “Telephone,” the latest novel by jack-of-all-trades, master-of-all-forms Percival Everett. They’re spoken by the novel’s narrator, Zach Wells, and they articulate the existential bind within which he finds himself.
Wells, “a geologist-slash-paleobiologist” whose marriage is flailing and whose 12-year-old daughter is dying, sees the world as unredeemed and unredeemable. Yet still he tries to save people within it, including himself. He sees action as futile — “actions have attendant actions, with unpredicted, unprompted intentions and results” — yet he acts anyway. In “Telephone,” and in much of Everett’s fiction, that’s what it means to live: to act in the face of absurdity. (There’s a reason Kierkegaard provides the epigraph to “Telephone.”) In Wells’s world, there is only the trying.
There is no such thing as a typical Percival Everett novel; he’s too varied in his styles, too eclectic in his interests. His plots center on abstract art (“So Much Blue”) or the racial politics of literary prizes (“Erasure”) or a Charlie Parker-obsessed, professionally inept third baseman (“Suder”). He writes absurdist academic satire as well as plotty westerns. He weds slapstick humor (“Blazing Saddles” is a favorite film) to philosophical ambition (Wittgenstein is a favorite thinker).
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. “Some people are just no good at being happy,” he says. “And by some people I mean me.” He’s a successful academic, even if his work doesn’t give him much pleasure; he’s an adequate husband, even if he is “not completely in love with” his wife, Meg. He lectures on autopilot but still performs well, occasionally landing a corny joke: His students like “schist happens”; they don’t get “subduction leads to orogeny.”
Wells lives in California, though his field work brings him to a small spot in Arizona and its deep geological and paleontological history: “I knew an awful lot about one particular hole called Naught’s Cave in the Grand Canyon and the bird life that once lived in it.” Note the pun on Naught/naught. At the center of Wells’s work (maybe at the center of all work), at the center of Wells’s life (maybe at the center of all life), is nothingness, a void that we can explore and catalog but never fill.
Wells is not a joiner. When a campus social justice group seeks to recruit Wells, who is black, to their cause, he bluntly refuses: “the very American thing of ordering pizza and having a party on the floor of the president’s office before you use your expensive educations to live good lives” isn’t as brave as you imagine, he informs the students. “Directness,” Wells thinks, is “the last excuse of the curmudgeon, the grouch.”
It’s also the last excuse of the deadpan comic and, 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. Here’s a playful, loving exchange between Wells and his daughter, Sarah, about the infinite monkey theorem: “What if Shakespeare was just hitting keys?” “Shakespeare didn’t have a typewriter.” “What if he was just making marks on paper? And that’s how he came up with ‘Macbeth?’ ” “I doubt it. Maybe ‘Measure for Measure.’ I could see that with ‘Measure for Measure.’ Not ‘Macbeth.’ ”
“I was,” Wells says, “simply in love with my daughter, with being a father.” Wells and Sarah play chess together; they make puns together; they talk art together. But then Sarah starts having issues with her vision. After she has a seizure, she is diagnosed with Batten disease, an incurable condition that will result in her quickly losing speech, motor skills, and cognitive abilities before killing her. As Wells says, “I would lose her before she was gone.”
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. There’s a colleague struggling to get tenure who reaches out to Wells for help. There’s a diligent student who diligently attempts to seduce him. There’s a field trip to the desert. (Everett, as always, writes finely about the Southwestern landscape.)
Central to the novel’s second half, there’s an unexplained note tucked into a shirt that Wells has bought online. “Ayudame,” the note reads. Finding out who is asking for help, and rescuing them when he does, brings Wells to New Mexico. It also brings into the story a host of pulpy characters: a kindly diner waitress; a pair of sinister neo-Nazis; a group of heroic poets. (Yes, really.)
Wells knows that his rescue mission is, at some level, just a way to forget about “the terrifying situation at home.” But what else can he do? To live in the world, Kierkegaard suggests, demands a leap of faith — and what makes it a leap of faith is precisely its unreasonableness. To laugh, to love, to act: These are absurd acts, “Telephone” implies, and they’re exactly what is required.
By Percival Everett
Graywolf, 232 pp., $16
Anthony Domestico is an associate professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of “Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.”