Thursday, September 9, 2021

Talk to Me

Talk to Me by T. C. Boyle
9/14/21; 352 pages

Talk to Me by T. C. Boyle is a very highly recommended novel about a chimp who has been taught to communicate via sign language.

Aimee Villard, a university student, applies for a job assisting animal behaviorist and professor Guy Schermerhorn in caring for Sam, a juvenile chimp he has taught to speak in sign language. As soon as she shows up, Sam bonds with her and Guy is also attracted to her. She takes on assisting with the teaching and caring for Sam with a natural ease. Guy is anxious to use Sam's ability to communicate through sign language to further his career, hopefully with an appearance with Sam on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. When Dr. Moncrief, the nefarious Iowa professor who owns Sam as well as a large number of other primates, decrees that teaching chimps to communicate is passe, he collects all his chimps, including Sam, and puts them in cages at his containment facility. Aimee, who has bonded with Sam too, leaves California for Iowa where she plans to offer to work at Moncrief's facility for free in order to be near Sam.

As expected from Boyle, the quality of the writing is skillful and superlative. The story is both a farce and a tragedy and I became invested in the plot immediately. Set in California during the mid 1980s, Boyle immediately captured the time period and setting at the opening when Aimee first sees Sam on TV and later a notice on a bulletin board looking for assistants to help with Sam's care.

The narrative is told through Guy, Aimee, and Sam's point of view. While Guy and Aimee's narrative move the plot forward, Sam's provides an awareness and emotional insight into his reactions and thought processes concerning what is happening to him. Their relationships also portray a love triangle of sorts while simultaneously exploring the consciousness, intercommunication, and analyzing the awareness of inter-species connections.

As a character study, the portrayal of Sam and his thoughts and feelings is mesmerizing and compelling. Following the actions and thoughts of Aimee and Guy reflect a more expected and anticipated development of their characters. Aimee is certainly the more nuanced character although Sam is also portrayed with and acuity and compassion. She has a connection with and love for Sam, but no legal rights. She is unable to turn her back on him, knowing the abuse Sam will face at the hands of Moncrief, who is a classic antagonist. Guy is an opportunistic pragmatist who, although he cared for Sam, is more interested in furthering his career.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

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