Review by Tobias Carroll
by Yannick Murphy
Harper Perennial; 223 p.
The first thing you notice when reading Yannick Murphy’s novel The Call is the way that it’s organized. The narrator, David Appleton, is a veterinarian in rural New England, and the novel is structured around the different calls that he receives over the course of several months. What this comes down to, in practice, are sentences such as these:
CALL: Castrate draft horse.
ACTION: Pulled out emasculators, castrated draft horse.
RESULT: Draft horse bled buckets…
Except that David applies a similar approach to describing his home life, encapsulating family dinners, economic anxieties, and conversations with his wife and children in similar fashion. Which ultimately tells us as much about our narrator’s mindset as any of his dialogue or actions: this is a man who likes order, and who sometimes attempts to impose order to situations where order can’t thrive. It ultimately speaks to questions of subtle repression and subtler hauntings, and allows for sections of minimalist prose to be contrasted with gorgeously-composed pastoral descriptions. It’s a device that ultimately bolsters the themes and structure of the novel that contains it.
While this structural choice works well, the overall arc of the book takes a more obscure shape. Without spoiling too much, David spends much of the book dealing with one family crisis, and towards the end must make a decision about another, largely unrelated matter. (Admittedly, Murphy does lay the groundwork for the latter throughout the course of the novel; it’s not an encounter that comes out of nowhere.) The stakes for the former are, ultimately, much higher than the latter; it’s as though Murphy’s penchant for realism wouldn’t allow David to be in much danger from a certain situation. But without the prospect of danger, that decision ends up being less resonant — the effective climax of the book involves its protagonist choosing whether or not to do the right thing with little on the line.
What impresses most about The Call aren’t the moral or ethical questions it raises, however — it’s the lived-in feel of the book. Murphy’s husband is a veterinarian; here, David’s spouse is a writer. This isn’t to suggest that The Call is thinly disguised nonfiction — assumably, there isn’t an alien spacecraft or experimental military drone hovering above her house right now, as there are in the novel. But it’s full of sharply observed details; the simple fact that most of the veterinary conditions referred to are presented to the reader without context lends the prose a greater sense of authenticity. And the economic anxieties that these characters face is as threatening as anything else in this book; it’s a resonant slice of life, and one that clicks in unexpected ways.