Often motivated by actual events, T.C. Boyle has written novels about hippies, rednecks, and beatniks; he’s fictionalized architect Frank Lloyd Wright, sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, and cereal heavyweight John Harvey Kellogg. In his howlingly marvelous eighteenth novel, “Talk to Me,” inspired by 1970s primate-language studies, Boyle writes about the short life of a chimpanzee named Sam. The novel is one of Boyle’s recent best, as good as his previous novel about Timothy Leary, the charlatan shaman in “Outside Looking In” (2019), and “Drop City” (2003), a National Book Award finalist.
“Talk to Me” begins in 1978, when primate-language studies were booming in academia. Boyle writes the novel in the third-person, mostly from the perspective of Professor Guy Schermerhorn, his assistant and love interest Aimee Villard, and Sam, a chimp who is about two and a half years old when the story begins. Sam doesn’t verbalize, but he communicates in sign language like the primates of those decades-old experiments did. Boyle gives Sam his own chapters that exuberantly brachiate throughout the novel like a chimp swinging from tree to tree. It might seem peculiar to write a story partly told from the viewpoint of a chimp, but stories about anthropomorphized animals have crawled, flown, and swum around fictional worlds for centuries. Aesop wrote fables about tortoises, foxes, and crows. George Orwell satirized society with talking pigs and ravens in “Animal Farm.” More recently, Jane Smiley’s horse, dog, and birds each have tails to talk about in her “Perestroika in Paris.” One of Boyle’s own earliest short stories, “Descent of Man,” depicted a woman who devolves into a primate who can use language.
Boyle’s masterly storytelling and shrewd social commentary have much in common with Charles Dickens; his laid-back, colloquial prose is maximalist rather than minimalist, with a touch of acute satire.
In “Talk to Me,” Aimee, a student at UCSM (the fictional University of California Santa Maria), gets along better with animals than she does with humans. She’s hardly a social butterfly. For Aimee, getting along with others amounts to learning that “certain cues” demand only “certain responses.” She applies for a “cross-fostering project,” working for Guy, and becomes Sam’s caretaker at a ranch owned by the university.
Sam has lived with humans nearly all his life and knows quite a few words (Boyle capitalizes them). Some are fairly short: TIME, BED, and FLOOR. Others are longer and more complex like BREAKFAST, STORYTIME, BEDTIME, and GIN-TONIC TIME. Not only does Sam know SMOKE and STONE, “a few tokes could have a wonderful mellowing effect on him, just like his nightly cocktail or glass of red wine.” Sam also knows short phrases that imply emotion like COME HUG and VERY SORRY, and word combinations that suggest rudimentary logic: KEY, LOCK, OUT. In addition, Boyle tells us, Sam “understood punishment, the concept of it, not in the sense of right and wrong.”
Despite Sam’s apparent humanness he is still a wild animal, getting in plenty of trouble, some forms less amusing than others. Punishment, for Sam, results in him living with non-language chimpanzees that he calls BUGS, since sees them as different from himself. Eventually, Aimee loves Sam as much as he loves her, which creates a love triangle of sorts with Guy.
Guy, a psychologist in his thirties, has attracted a mixture of fame and notoriety after his and Sam’s appearance on the television show “To Tell the Truth.” He, Aimee, and his team of graduate students are teaching Sam the chimp American Sign Language (ASL). Guy totters between being likable and not, but Aimee loves him, though she later understands that Guy’s more interested in using Sam than teaching him. Sam is Guy’s “ticket to bigger things, like a full professorship, a book contract,” and maybe even a guest spot next to Johnny on “The Tonight Show.”
Our dislike for Guy is nothing compared to how the virtuoso Boyle makes us feel about the Dickensian villainy of Guy’s boss, one Professor Moncrief, the warden of a farm of caged chimpanzees back in Iowa. Moncrief wears a gold signet ring with snakes molded onto it — snakes, the “bogeymen in a chimp’s dreamworld.” Boyle invites you to make the comparison to Dickens when Moncrief says, “You want to see if I’m like the villain out of some Dickens novel, what’s-his-name, the beadle at the orphanage.” Boyle even has the evil head chimp kiss Moncrief’s ring. Taken out of context — like scenes in much of Dickens — these may sound absurd and melodramatic, but Boyle renders them believable.
The plot evolves as Aimee tries to save human-like Sam from humans whose actions often lack what we’d consider humanity. If you’re willing to suspend your disbelief about anthropomorphism, you’ll enjoy this gripping and inescapably bittersweet book, in which Boyle suggests our debt to our predetermined animal natures.
Talk to Me
Ecco, 352 pages, $27.99