The Call: A Novel

Image of The Call: A Novel
Author(s): 
Release Date: 
August 1, 2011
Publisher/Imprint: 
Harper Perennial
Pages: 
220
Reviewed by: 

“By way of recommending Yannick Murphy and The Call, I point out that it is the rare novel that is good enough to send the reader off to seek and find the author’s earlier books . . . what higher praise is there than that?”

The Call is a nifty trick of a novel. The quick summer read that transcends its category. The bit of fluff that thoroughly engrosses, entertains, and, finally, enlightens.

The surprise is that it should not, by rights, be nearly as good as it is. From word one, the author locks herself in a literary straightjacket of sorts, and, contorting herself to grasp the key out of the lock with her teeth, spits the thing away.

This is a novel with a format, you see. And there is a reason why there are very, very few novels written in formats. To be simple about it: What seems clever at first often chokes the life out of the thing before it is half written. So there it lays, flopping about on the bookshelf, suffering so.

But author Yannick Murphy has a gift for words and a sense of the literary absurd (with a gentle kiss and a sweet hug owed to Kurt Vonnegut who made all such things possible and whose voice one can hear murmuring in the background) that transcends. And so while the reader tries for the first few pages to wish the offending format away, in time he accepts it as a quirk, nothing more.

The book is told to us in the first person viewpoint of David Appleton, a veterinarian who travels the back roads of Vermont in plying his trade. (Murphy herself apparently is married to just such a vet—what luck.) And thus the book is structured to reflect the vet’s day, from the phone call (the titular “call”) that sends him on his way, to the patient, its issue, the resolution, etc.

But better to show than to tell:

“CALL: A cow with her dead calf half-born.

“ACTION: Put on boots and pulled dead calf out while standing in a field full of mud.

“RESULT: Hind legs tore off from dead calf while I pulled. Head, forelegs, and torso are still inside the mother.

“THOUGHTS ON DRIVE HOME WHILE PASSING READ AND GOLD LEAVES ON MAPLE TREES: Is there a nicer place to live?

“WHAT CHILDREN SAID TO ME WHEN I GOT HOME: Hi, Pop.

“WHAT THE WIFE MADE FOR DINNER: Something mixed-up.”

Now what careful reader, upon reading this opening passage, would not run through the pages of the book to see if the format held for all of it? And who among us would not simper just a little upon seeing that it is?

And yet, the surprise is that in the hands of Yannick Murphy the format drives the reader into the narrative, not out of it—a seemingly impossible thing.

But how does she do this?

Simple, she cheats.

No doubt as quickly as she realized that her format gave her book a unique structure, she realized that it was unsustainable as well. And so the format grows and swells. Anything becomes potentially part of “the structure bars.” “What I ate for Dinner” becomes a response to “What the wife cooked for dinner” when nut loaf turns up on the table. “What I felt even before I walked in the door” precedes “What children said to me when I got home” when needed.

Thus the format remains fresh by mutating before our eyes, by remaining creative and never punitive (as formats tend to become). It is not just any literary straightjacket after all, but Houdinis—filled with secret slips and zips and gadgets, allowing the author, at will, to step free.

To torture the metaphor just a bit more, once Murphy begins to make origami out of the cardboard walls of the box into which she has placed herself, we get things like the following:

“THINGS I HAVE SAID TO THE WIFE OVER THE YEARS: You’re mentally incompetent. Maybe you have a mitochondrial disease. You’ve got a slow learning curve. Your hands are cold as death. The operative word is Fuck off, but you already know that I said that once.

“THINGS SHE HAS SAID TO ME OVER THE YEARS: Fuck you, Fuck off, Go fuck yourself. You’re a Nazi, You’re a prick, You’re a shit, Eat shit.

“CALL: A voice on the phone that sounds like my own, only younger. Hello, is this the residence of Dr. David Appleton? the voice asks and I am elated. I have achieved space-time travel and here I am calling myself from the past. Are you David Appleton who went to __________ high school in ’75? my young voice asked. I wondered where I was that I was calling myself from. Was I at my childhood home? Was soup cooking on the stove? The smell of her peanut butter cookies baking in the oven? Was my brother beside me, punching me on the arm? My father in his La-Z-Boy chair smoking his pipe.

ACTION: I actually held the phone away from myself and looked at the mouthpiece thinking there would be some shred of me, some image of myself, coming out from the small holes in the plastic.

“WHAT I WANTED TO SAY: Eureka! Yes, by God you have achieved space-time travel. You did it! I did it! I wanted to shout and I wondered when in the future I would actually be achieving this amazing feat of being able to travel through time, because as of yet, I hadn’t a clue how to do it.

“WHAT I SAID INSTEAD: Why yes, you’ve reached Dr. Appleton’s residence.”

And so it goes. As the reader travels along with Appleton over the unpaved roads of Vermont, he discovers spaceships hovering over the hollows, a small farm on which a sheep named Alice plays the role of Little Edie to an aged farmwife’s Big Edie in a touching reenactment of Grey Gardens, swim teams, sons in comas, and sons and assailants unknown. And animals. Animals live and animals die and animals seem beside the point, and yet they are the point—their lives and their lives in relationship to ours.

Consider this brief, beautiful exchange:

“CALL: Helga Bartlett says her old dog need putting down.

“ACTION: Drove to Helga Bartlett’s house. The dog ran up to me and wagged his tail. The dog sniffed my pants and wagged his tail. The dog looked up at me with smiling eyes and wagged his tail.

“RESULT: I could not put Helga Bartlett’s dog down. Helga, I said, maybe it’s just not his time.

“WHAT HELGA SAID: Yesterday, it was his time. Yesterday, he could not walk. He lay on the floor by the fire hardly breathing. Yesterday, he did not eat.

“WHAT I SAID: He got over yesterday.”

A NOTE ON RECOMMENDING BOOKS AND THINGS: The chief difference between telling others about a little-known but splendid restaurant and a little-known by marvelous author is that, in the first case, increased popularity means that you will never get a table when you want one. In the second case, increased popularity for an author actually leads to increased availability for his or her books. So one should never hesitate to recommend a given author, as there will be no regrets.

By way of recommending Yannick Murphy and The Call, I point out that it is the rare novel that is good enough to send the reader off to seek and find the author’s earlier books (novels Signed, Mata Hari, Here They Come, and The Sea of Trees, plus short story collections and children’s books) in order to enjoy them as well. And, in the end, what higher praise is there than that?