Heather Bass’ Review of T.C. Boyle’s Talk to Me

The title of T.C. Boyle’s latest novel, Talk to Me, invites conversation not only among its characters but among readers as well. As Guy Schermerhorn, a college professor, and Aimee Villard, an undergraduate, teach Sam, an impish chimpanzee, to talk through sign language, Boyle prompts discussion of humans’ relationships with animals used as test subjects.

A specialist in primatology, Guy hopes to prove that chimpanzees can learn our language and actively communicate with humans. More invested in furthering his career than Sam’s welfare, Guy recognizes that “plenty of people, both inside [his] department and across the field . . . would condemn him for what he was doing,” for his “[self-]aggrandizement no matter the outcome. They were right, of course, at least partially, but it didn’t matter—he wanted this. Badly” (92).

Guy’s ambition is repeatedly condemned by the women in his life. But it is the shy, pretty, and oddly maternal assistant (or chimp babysitter), Aimee, who serves as the novel’s moral center. She is the one character that Sam loves and who is devoted to him. Unfortunately, for all her ethical principles, Aimee never rises above Guy’s initial observation of her as “a slim, shy girl, so shy he practically had to conduct both sides of the interview himself” (17). The constant reminders about Aimee’s looks and demeanor are likely to exhaust readers.

Sam’s owner, Donald Moncrief, acts as the obvious antagonist. A large, intimidating man, who sports an eye patch along with a cow prod or a dart gun, Moncrief behaves unpleasantly to animals, including the humans. He’s obnoxious and lewd. The only thing missing from his stock of villainous attributes is an evil laugh.

Boyle takes a formulaic approach to character interactions. Aimee and Guy hook up, violating boundaries between student and professor, employer and employee. Their first tryst seems more coercive than romantic as Guy insists on another glass of champagne (even after Aimee initially objects) and it is Guy—Aimee’s superior—who makes the first move. Aimee follows along submissively:

She [Aimee] didn’t think about Sam, didn’t think about the fact that she was going to break the lease on her apartment at the end of the month and move in here permanently, didn’t think about Melanie or Elise or anybody else who might have been here before her—she just gave way and let herself be led. (83) 

Aimee does eventually display some power moves for Sam’s sake, but always returns to Guy as a codependent, never fully making that transition to independence. Sam exhibits more loyalty. Despite the many years he’s spent with Guy, the chimpanzee bonds more with the female human as if she is meant to be a savior (or the “chosen one” he’s been waiting for). When Moncrief proves a more radical version of Guy by signaling his perception of Sam as a mere investment, Aimee resists, leading to an open disagreement with Guy, who slaps her. At that moment, Sam reveals himself to be the true protector: “That was when Sam slammed into [the professor] because Sam had made his choice a long time ago and he’d chosen Aimee” (281).

If readers can overcome the limited character development, they can appreciate how Boyle’s fiction functions as a critique of animal testing. The novel is set sometime in the 1970s but its narrative is certainly not dated. Through Guy, Aimee, and Moncrief, we learn the sad fate that awaits chimpanzees whose lives are influenced by human meddling. In another plea to return Sam and have his study revitalized, Moncrief explains: “About the only thing the animals [his cross-fostered chimpanzees] are good for at this point is biomed—they need all the chimps and monkeys they can get, what with AIDS and hepatitis and the boom in transplant surgery” (169-170). Readers learn that chimps—after whatever experiment concludes—are considered “damaged goods” that are “confined to cages, without stimulus, without love or even the most rudimentary kind of interaction with people or members of their own species” (172). This point is later emphasized with the suicide of one of Moncrief’s “animals.”

Perhaps Boyle’s strongest argument is having Sam advocate for himself. Most of the novel is split into close third-person narratives between Guy, Aimee, and Sam. Boyle allows Sam a voice, which renders him more than a test subject. Although the chimpanzee sometimes acts like a troublesome toddler, the pathos of Sam’s perspective compels readers to root for him. Readers recognize Sam as an individual being with thoughts and feelings as Boyle roughly describes the world and events from the non-human perspective. At the Moncrief ranch, Sam reacts to abandonment: “The weight kept crushing him. He pulled his hair out. He stopped eating. And then he gave up and fell into some deep place inside him, a place that was black and hopeless, where his senses were paralyzed and nothing moved in the space of his skull, not words or images or wants or needs” (162). Sam may not be capable of understanding his depressive feelings, but readers do understand and can sympathize. We care more for him than we do for Guy or Aimee.

Readers can easily recognize parallels between Guy’s experiments with chimpanzees and similarly callous treatment of other creatures. Sam resembles the rabbit tested for cosmetic safety or the dog poisoned by weed killer. Boyle’s newest work shows what happens when animals outlive their usefulness to science. Despite the painful familiarity of its human personalities, Talk to Me still manages to function as an effective cautionary tale about the negative impacts people have on other species. The chimpanzees are more humane than the humans.

Boyle, T.C. Talk to Me. ECCO, 2021.