“No sign of Boyle’s powers diminishing” – Talk to Me by TC Boyle

IMG_2022-5-8-164809“Do people care?” the BBC asked former Labour spin doctor Alistair Campbell just the other day, in response to Campbell railing against the many, many, many lies told by our current Sub-Prime Minister, the lying liar Boris Johnson. A mere half a week, and probably a half dozen scandals later, the lying liar slashed foreign aid to Africa, saying that it wasn’t what the British people wanted (and changing the parlance of the old magic money tree into “the cash machine in the sky”). A reiteration of the BBC’s argument in its own way – people don’t care. Why am I mentioning any of this at the beginning of a review of TC Boyle’s latest novel, Talk to Me? All will make sense soon.

It’s 1978. Talking Heads have just released ‘Take Me to the River’ and Aimee, a somewhat less than conscientious student is cooking noodles and watching the TV when she chances across something rather remarkable – a game show featuring someone she recognises from campus, a professor, Guy Schermerhorn, who happens to be in the company of Sam, a chimp who can apparently communicate via sign language. As far as Aimee is concerned, “it was as if a door that had been closed all her life had suddenly swung open”. Two days later, Aimee is applying for a position in the house where Sam lives, in the company of Guy and several other students, and life is forever changed.

Talk to Me switches perspective, as many of Boyle’s novels do, between Aimee, Guy and Sam, for the most part – and to begin with, Sam is not in the same place as Aimee and Guy, instead poised somewhere slightly further in the future, in a cage, enduring regular punishments as a result of the fact he in no way, shape or form resembles the BLACK BUGS who are in cages around him (the work undertaken by Guy and Aimee and the others having made Sam think he is other, when in fact it has made him not quite chimp and not quite human, a fit nowhere). We ping pong back and forth between Aimee and Sam, with Aimee getting to grips with this new world and Guy doing his best, at least to begin with, to juggle the challenges of academia alongside his own ambition and that of Dr Moncrieff, the guy he reports to and who, you know, actually owns the monkey (Sam) as well as the other monkeys in other similar trials about the country.

As with The Terranauts or Outside Looking In (or The Inner Circle or Riven Rock or… the list goes on), a central strand of the novel focuses on Aimee and Sam, who begin a relationship (and we all know, don’t we, by now how good Boyle is on the relationship between men and women, how sympathetic he can be to nuance, how adept he is at narratorial sleight of hand), albeit a relationship complicated by the occasional jealousy of Sam, who considers Aimee his own. But that conflicting Sam strand nags at you. He’s in a cage. He tries to escape. He’s hunted by dogs. He’s zapped by a taser. When things resolve themselves, you come to see that the initial flurry of excitement driven by the odd bit of TV coverage comes to all of nothing very much and the funding is withdrawn and Dr Moncrieff takes Sam back – and Aimee and Guy spin out from there.

Aimee is the most sympathetic figure in the novel, and her heart is indisputably in the right place. Guy is less sympathetic but you still understand him, in all his complexity, someone struggling with their bright future going down the toilet. And in the midst of them both – Sam, a lovingly rendered, honest and complex conjuring of another species struggling with new information, from human words for things to such abstract concepts as God. The last third of the novel switches things up again (Boyle is the grand master of switching things up – you could never predict where one of his novels will take you from the opening to the close), with Aimee living on a Nomadland style trailer park, trying to lay low even as we know it’s unlikely to turn out well for anyone concerned.

Which brings us back to the start. There is a little bit of me that emerged from Talk to Me feeling like this was perhaps the most pessimistic of Boyle’s recent novels. Having conjured a scene, he leaves us with “every night, night after night, there would have been no one there to see it, to record it, to care.” And I was struck by the coincidence, by caring being in the news, as it were, by humble newsreaders wondering whether anyone cares about lapses in decency, standards, morals, ethics, any of the fine-grained latticework that holds a decent society together. Maybe that is what Boyle is doing here? Like the Lorax he’s bellowing, “Anyone? Anyone out there?” (I suspect he knows that, at the very least, his readers care. But he’s not alone in wondering where we go, how do we fix things, how do we restore a sense of people caring for other people, how do we re-establish a society in which those without are maligned and those with too much just engineer ways to get more for themselves.) Maybe just maybe the place to begin is with the rudiments, the words that Sam can sign, certain basic things we can all agree on.

If we’re looking for things we can agree on, at least we can agree that with his – can it be? – 18th novel, there’s no sign of Boyle’s powers diminishing. There is much here to enjoy and much to mull over.

Any Cop?: Genuine, consistent, reliable pleasures seem to diminish as one gets older but Boyle can always be relied upon to deliver the goods and Talk to Me is as good a Boyle novel as we have come to expect from him.

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