This past week I finished Percival Everett’s most recent novel, Telephone. I decided to read this book because it is Everett’s most recent work and because it has a unique marketing twist. In a recent interview, Everett acknowledged that there are three versions of Telephone that exist, but they are published and appear to look exactly the same. In other words, you do not know which of the three versions of the book you have until you are reading it. Many readers believe that the differences are subtle. For instance (and without giving anything away), in the version I had, the narrator often thinks about doing things. As a reader, you hear his thought process. In another version, the narrator actually commits and follows through on the ideas he has. So, three different books exist, but the books seem to have subtle differences. Still, I might pick up another copy to see for myself.
I highly recommend this book for multiple reasons, but for the purpose of this blog I would like to focus on one paragraph from the novel. Late in the book, Everett exposes how certain numbers carry more weight when telling a tragic story. For instance, if one person dies in a fire, the tragedy might spark some attention in the media, but if 100 people die in a fire, the tragedy will most likely be covered by multiple news stations and talked about by civilians. Everett elaborates on the relationship between numbers and tragic events. In Telephone, Everett conveys how quickly people change the number in a story to exaggerate an event, or to give their story more meaning: “Some said that three hundred women had been killed or disappeared in some twenty years. Others said it was closer to seven hundred gone. People are like that about numbers. They will say it is not seven hundred but only three, two hundred, as if one hundred would not be truly horrible, fifty, twenty-five” (163). People use numbers to exaggerate a story and spark attention. However, Everett pushes us to stop focusing our attention on numbers and adjust our attention to the people involved in these tragedies. In Telephone, the main narrator, Zach Wells, is dealing with one major loss. A person experiencing one unimaginably difficult loss is likely to reconsider exaggerating numbers in stories to make them worthy of the term “tragedy.” One loss should be enough.
As I continued to think about Everett’s point, I realized that I had already read a poem of Everett’s that follows the same line of thinking. About three years ago, I read a poem titled “Logic” in Everett’s book of poetry, re: f(gesture). In the sixth stanza of the poem “Logic,” Everett conveys the lasting impact of numbers: “In the sixth stanza, Everett writes, “Seven men lost but not seven. Seven is, will be. All men will die but not seven.” This specific poem jumped out at me, so I eventually blogged about it for class. In the blog, I unpacked the evolution of what the poem meant to me: “People involved in tragedies can be forgotten, yet the numbers involved in disasters are usually emphasized and engraved in our brains.” After interpreting the stanza, I tried to find meaning from the interpretation: “If this was Everett’s intended message, the stanza could be interpreted as a challenge. Perhaps Everett is calling on us to look less at the numbers involved in catastrophes and look more into the people. Will it ever be possible for society to remember the actual people involved in disasters?”
I refer back to this blog because I now have more to work with. I don’t think that I can completely answer my original questions, but I think that I am getting close to forming some sort of conclusion, especially because the world is working it’s way through a disaster right now. The number of people infected with the Corona Virus continues to go down, so many people have become more relaxed (including myself). We must not yet relax. I need to remember that the small percentage of infected people that I see reported every day are not merely numbers, they are people. Although the number of cases in New York continues to trickle downward, it doesn’t mean that people still aren’t sick and that people still can’t contract the virus. The pandemic should be taken just as seriously now, as it was when the number of cases was at its highest, because the number is still high, and the number is not just a number – the number is made up of human beings fighting to live.
Maybe I’ve analyzed Everett’s discussion of numbers a little too deeply, but either way I have pulled something very meaningful out of his words. While the numbers on our televisions continue to decrease, we must continue to take precautions and do our best to socially distance, because each person’s sickness should be tragic, it shouldn’t take 160,000 people to die in America for us to label something as tragic. 160,000 people had names, houses, families, hobbies, and routines. How do you bring life to a number?
My last odd question: Since Everett appears to have a fascination with numbers, is he commenting on this topic by writing three books and publishing them all as Telephone? Why am I so fascinated by the number of books, when the book itself is what holds all the value?