Review: The Call by Yannick Murphy

I spent about an hour scouring the “newly released” section/shelf of my local library for anything with a synopsis that didn’t read like a Lifetime movie. Yannick Murphy’s third novel, The Call, not only fulfilled this requirement, but also enticed me with its cleanly designed cover (not exactly a great judge of a book’s quality, but I was desperate, having forgotten to leave enough space in my suitcase for winter break reading materials) and copyright page boasting an excerpt’s appearance in McSweeney’s #29 [Murphy’s work is also featured in the current issue of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, #39—a coincidence which I find amusing mainly because I am bored].

Of course, The Call is good: I wasn’t going to force myself to read something unsatisfying or dull during my short break from psychology textbooks and literary theory. And it’s good despite the fact that it’s about a veterinarian, taking calls to heal horses and cattle in a small, mountainside town.

Wait, that description enticed you? Is the last book you read Misty of Chincoteague? Or was it maybe something from the Animal Ark series? I mean, that’s fine, but then you shouldn’t read this book.

The Call is a novel about more than the immature themes of “family, community, [and] the human bond with animals,” which Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks applauds Murphy for tackling. Although we’d all love a book about animal activism because, hey, bunnies have feelings too, this one wasn’t written by Jonathan Safran Foer. If you look closely enough (I’m talking eighth-grade-analysis level), it’s about human interdependence. It’s about the decay of American subsistence farming and waning attitudes of self-sufficiency in a country proud of its DIY fetish and rebellious heritage. It’s about aging and losing and slipping away.

We watch David, the protagonist whose name really is unimportant, forgettable, fail to save the animals he’s paid to treat. But instead of focusing on the image of a stillborn calf’s carcass being torn in half as David tries to pull it from its pained mother’s uterus, an image Murphy relays with a disturbingly clinical affect, we are struck by the character’s reaction (or lack thereof) to the blatant display of annihilated innocence: “THOUGHTS ON DRIVE HOME WHILE PASSING RED AND GOLD LEAVES ON MAPLE TREES: Is there a nicer place to live?”

This is a book of reactions; most of the time, conversations—about a comatose son, a sperm donation, a crime unsolved—aren’t even dictated to us. Murphy, instead, presents us with a slew of David’s silent regrets and desires, and, from them, we feel him straining against piles of problems unresolved.

Composed of thoughts categorized and labeled by their subject, The Call is a novel that pushes the notion of a first-person perspective to the extreme. Consider the “meta” trend that is enhancing/destroying contemporary art: The Call embraces the fad, going so far as to announce David’s unreliability as a narrator each time he offers up snippets of dialogue by explaining that these are words filtered by the ears of a distressed/crazed/vengeful/homicidal mountain man. It seems that even mainstream authors (because someone published in McSweeney’s can hardly be considered “underground”) are experimenting with post-modern techniques in addition to shrouding their work in dramatic post-modern attitudes.

Does The Call prove that hipster isn’t hipster anymore? Maybe. That is a topic for discussion in an essay to be written for an Emerson literature course.

But if you are suffering from an existential crisis and would be pleased with the ability of a contemporary author to capture crushing despair in a book structured like a medical log, you should stop reading when the section entitled “Still Winter” comes to a close. What follows is the emergence of an unforeseen springtime cure, which sprinkles its magical fairy dust along the creases in David’s crumpled life. Oh, spring and it’s stifling aura of rebirth.

The change in season renders the world a calming place where the character’s tense muscles are kneaded into a sugary cake iced with vanilla familial love.  Maybe the intrusion of positivity in Murphy’s exhaustingly depressing novel is merely an indicator of her optimism for the human condition. But David’s decline is preferred to any neat-and-tidy ending fraught with clichés and excess sap.

I guess I failed to avoid the Lifetime novel, after all.

Published at EmersonPubClub on April 5, 2012.

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