Review by Shaun Byron Fitzpatrick
The first time I read Dorothy Parker’s short story “A Telephone Call,” I was on my way to Philly and a boy was not texting me back. (This is relevant, I promise). I was in the middle of the internal debate so common to twenty-somethings attempting to navigate the murky waters of not-quite-dating: Why is he not answering me? Do I text him first? How long should I wait until contacting him? What hideous personality trait that I’ve tried so hard to hide did he finally uncover? Hoping that Parker’s tales of heartbreak and suicide would brighten my mood, I began reading a few of her stories before stumbling across this one.
The plot of “A Telephone Call” is simple: our unnamed narrator pleads and bargains with God to make her inattentive beau keep his promise to call her. She frets over whether or not to call him, trying to convince herself that he must still care about her. Her internal debate swings from confidence in his affections to bitter renouncements of romance. Ultimately, she decides that she would rather he had died than accept that he was choosing to ignore her. The story has no resolution; we are never told whether the narrator is ever called by her lover.
Maybe because I was acting out my own version of “A Telephone Call” when I first read the story, I felt an immediate kinship with our narrator. The story is entirely relatable; Parker isn’t making any grand statements about love or heartbreak, but is instead just letting us inside the head of one woman looking at the dissolution of her relationship. The narrator becomes a friend, and it’s almost impossible not to sympathize with her. This is where Parker shines: the narrator becomes a reflection of us, mimicking the insecurities many of us have faced. I found myself nodding along to her rationale, comparing it with my own, and finding us in almost total agreement. (I’m not necessarily going to say that I would have preferred that this boy had suffered a horrible accident that left him incapable of texting me; I’ll just say that Parker and I agree on most things). We see our narrator growing increasingly more desperate as the story progresses, but it’s impossible to pity her; pity suggests that we are better than her, and I at least cannot say that I haven’t acted exactly as the narrator has. She comes across as pathetic at times, but she seems aware of it, and almost seems disgusted with herself. She is no romantic heroine, but rather a flawed and entirely human character.
It is the narrator’s outbursts, rather than her pleading for attention, that make the tale ring achingly true to modern dating. Parker anticipates a world where returning phones calls and texts has become a strategic endeavor, a battle to see who can care less. “I know you shouldn’t keep telephoning them – I know they don’t like that,” she writes. “When you do that, they know you are thinking about them and wanting them, and that makes them hate you.” She later confesses, “I wish to God I could make him cry. I wish I could make him cry and tread the floor and feel his heart heavy and big and festering in him. I wish I could hurt him like hell.” Parker never sugarcoats love; her narrator’s feelings are raw—an exposed nerve that forces readers to face their own cynicism regarding romance. Perhaps the ending of “A Telephone Call” can be put to a
“Lady or the Tiger” test: whether or not readers choose to believe that her lover calls her shows their own faith in love. Personally, I think she’s still sitting by the phone.
Dorothy Parker’s first collection of poetry, Enough Rope, was published in 1926, and was a bestseller. Her two subsequent collections were Sunset Gun in 1928 and Death and Taxes in 1931. Her collected fiction came out in 1930 as Laments for the Living. In 1929, she won the O. Henry Award for her autobiographical short story “Big Blonde.” She produced short fiction in the early 1930s, and also began writing drama reviews for theNew Yorker. Parker was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1959 and was a visiting professor at California State College in Los Angeles in 1963. Parker passed away in 1967. (Bio adapted from poets.org).