The author and USC professor Percival Everett is no novice when it comes to wrestling with heavy themes — free will, epistemology, the problem of evil. In 35 books, including the novels “Erasure,” “So Much Blue” and “I Am Not Sidney Poitier,” he has interrogated the ways many people mistake the surface of a situation, or the parts they see, for the whole. But his narratives live at ground level too, in characters who face shattering decisions and situations that both reflect and defy the expectations put on black writers like himself.
All of which is to say that what he has done with his latest novel, “Telephone,” is both utterly surprising and completely in character. Everett has written three versions of the book and released them simultaneously, without telling the reader which she has bought. (The only clue is a slight difference on each front cover.) The structure of branching possibilities isn’t entirely unfamiliar to anyone who’s seen “Sliding Doors” or grown up on “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels — except that Everett is doing the choosing and asking us to figure out why.
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.
Robert Frost explored this paradox in “The Road Not Taken,” only to have his intent of mocking an indecisive friend misinterpreted by generations as an ode to nonconformism. His conclusion that the road “less traveled by” “made all the difference” is clearly ironic. Everett makes his fork in the woods a goose foot, with three plots in pursuit of safe harbor from an oncoming storm.
The novel revolves around Zach Wells, a professor of geology and paleobiology; his wife, Meg; and their adolescent daughter, Sarah. Upon his return from a research trip, Zach notices that his daughter’s chess-playing skills, usually razor-sharp, appear to have lost their edge. Campus politics complicates his life — particularly a student with a crush on him. And when he opens a package containing a shirt he ordered, he finds a tiny note in the pocket that reads "Ayudame." Someone seems to be asking for help, but is this a practical joke?
One of the subthemes of “Telephone” is the extent to which the accidents of our birth — especially gender or race — shape the choices we are allowed to make. Zach recognizes this in his own family: “I tried to tell my daughter, while she could understand, that women are hunted in this world. I tried to tell her without telling her, without saying it in plain language. I did not want her to be afraid in life.” Zach’s interactions with all the women he encounters — his colleague, his student, his wife, his daughter and eventually the sender of the note — reveal that the gulf between our intentions and actions is in fact not the space where we exert control over what happens to us. “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,” the proverb insists, but it makes no allowance for the beggar’s riding skills or the horse’s compliance. Action meets fickle reality.
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: “People, and by people I mean them, never look for truth, they look for satisfaction. There is nothing worse, certain painful and deadly diseases notwithstanding, than an unsatisfactory, piss-poor truth, whereas a satisfactory lie is all too easy to accept, even embrace, get cozy with.”
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. The grief that we feel when circumstances strip us of attachments and illusions is explored on multiple levels. Reading descriptions of Zach’s paternal love, I could feel Everett’s sentences resonating in my chest.
But back to the gambits. A clue to Zach’s strategy — and Everett’s — lies in the section “Castling Short,” which features a series of moves in a chess game between him and his daughter. Rather than trying to defeat Sarah, Zach seems intent on a draw (in other words, stasis). But when she “castles short,” swapping king and rook, he wonders what else might be possible. “That two pieces could move at once seemed like magic to me, enough so that I wished I could make a similar move in real life. What such a thing would look like I had no idea.” Everett’s three versions of “Telephone” explore what could happen if we recognized that either/or is yet another fiction.
Sarah explains to her father that the reason she consistently beats him is because he is unwilling to sacrifice pieces. “You can’t protect everybody,” she tells him. “You just have to get the better of it or get the position you want.” This applies readily to Zach’s entire life — until events outside his control force him to choose. Or not choose.
Like watching a skilled juggler execute a six-ball fountain, the experience of reading “Telephone” is astonishing. Everett maps out the plot to guide readers through emotional territory while using abstract concepts as trail markers. For millennia, theologians have wrestled with the existence of evil. Pantheism explained it by making some gods good and some evil, but monotheism posits one omnipotent being responsible for both.
In seeking answers, Christians imported concepts of predestination from the metaphysics of Plato and Aristotle with mixed — and sometimes disastrous — results. Everett alludes to those arguments before moving to the obvious alternative. For the French philosopher Voltaire, the catastrophic 1755 Lisbon earthquake demonstrated that to believe in an omniscient god you had to accept the random deaths of thousands. “Like Voltaire, I hold contempt for such a god,” Zach’s colleague declares.
As an atheist, Zach rejects all notions of a god in control of fate. As a scientist, he tests his explanations against his data — his way of trying to “know” the world. But what if knowledge ends up paralyzing us? Perhaps “Telephone” is not about choice but about the stories we tell ourselves about choice.
Everett’s three “Telephone” novels test emotional and philosophical truths by exploring whether any of Zach’s choices can help him wrest control of a narrative intent on breaking his heart. Can he offset one harmful decision by making a better, unrelated one? And who keeps the balance sheet in such a universe? “I hated the notion of redemption,” Zach thinks in this moment of crisis. “But here I was in the world, in this world. I would do something.” As he discovers, not all redemption stories go according to plan.
Berry writes for a number of publications and tweets @BerryFLW.
Graywolf: 232 pages, $16