If the measure of a good story is how often you think about it after you are done, then Talk to Me (Ecco), a new novel by T.C. Boyle, hits the mark. In fact, as I finished, I closed my eyes and let what I had just read wash over me, trying not to judge the characters’ morality — or lack thereof — but instead to feel the impact of having gotten to know them. This is not a happy tale, but it is one that will move you and make you think, which is something I always look for in a book.

Told through alternating narrators, Talk to Me follows the story of Sam, a chimpanzee taken from his mother as an infant and raised by Guy, a professor and researcher, as human. The goal of Guy’s research, initially, is to see if Sam can not only be taught to talk using sign language but also to think. 

We meet Sam and Guy through Aimee, a college student who stumbles across them as they make an appearance on the television game show To Tell the Truth. Guy is telegenic and Sam is adorable, charming the cast and the television audience with his clothes and ability to answer questions. Shortly after, Aimee finds herself outside Guy’s office with a job offer to work with Sam at his ranch, provided the interview goes well.

AN INSTANT BOND

From their first meeting, it is clear that Aimee and Sam have a special connection. For Aimee, this quickly becomes more than a job; she is devoted to Sam and drops out of school to spend all of her time with him and Guy, who eventually becomes her lover.

The first section of the book is devoted to telling Sam’s journey through Aimee and Guy. It’s not until the second section that we are introduced to Dr. Moncrief, Guy’s boss and the professor who owns Sam. We learn that Sam is just one of several chimps who are being taught to communicate and live as humans in the hopes that this will reveal some higher-order thinking and reasoning. While Dr. Moncrief never narrates, his character is evident through his treatment of others, beginning with Sam and the other chimps at the Barn, the chimp research facility.

To say more would spoil the thoughtful layers of this story. As each character, including Sam, comes to learn more about the world, who has the power to make decisions for them and the impact of those decisions, we are forced to ask ourselves some questions: The straightforward variety like “What is right?” and “What responsibility do humans bear for their animal research subjects?” in addition to more complex queries like “What is the cost of fame, success and trust?”

LANGUAGE AND LOVE

While not a happy story, Talk to Me feels real and relevant because none of the characters are perfect. They each have motives driven by ego, identity, money and reputation. Like all of us, they struggle to understand love and expectations well as the accountability those two crucial factors bring to any relationship. And at its core, the novel reflects on both the value and limits of communication and our ability to hear and understand only what we choose to. 

Near the end, Guy thinks, “it was his fault too for believing in something as absurd as the power of language to construct a world out of nothing.” Isn’t that something we all believe?

Buy this book!

About T.C Boyle:

Thomas Coraghessan Boyle, also known as T. C. Boyle, is an American novelist and short story writer. Since the mid-1970s, he has published fourteen novels and more than 100 short stories. He won the PEN/Faulkner award in 1988 for his third novel, World’s End, which recounts 300 years in upstate New York. Boyle also works as an English professor at the University of Southern California.