“Talk to Me” is not a departure. The plot, about a chimpanzee raised as a human being in the name of science, is classic Boyle, a writer whose motor revs at the intersection of folly and progress. That the novel is based on actual events, as many of this writer’s stories are, only adds to its air of familiarity.
Boyle’s inspiration this time out is Project Nim, a Columbia University study from the 1970s in which researchers tried to teach a young chimpanzee American Sign Language while he lived with a human family in New York. The experiment was deemed a failure after four years, and its subject, given the ridiculous name Nim Chimpsky, was abandoned to a life in a cage.
In his retelling, Boyle takes this story first to California, later to the middle of the country and occasionally past the point of believability. The good news is that the storytelling itself moves. “Talk to Me” is flawed, but it’s never dull. Boyle’s writing is propulsive, sometimes breathlessly so. A typical passage: “If somebody spoke to her, she responded, certain cues demanding certain responses — that was the way society was ordered — but nobody spoke to her apart from the women at the supermarket checkout who said ‘Hi’ and ‘Have a nice day,’ and once in a while one of her professors, but she tended to avoid them as much as possible.”
“She” is Aimee Villard, a solitary undergrad at a fictional university in Santa Maria, Calif. (UCSM) majoring in early-childhood education. One day in 1978, Aimee catches an episode of the television game show “To Tell the Truth.” Panelists are trying to identify a UCSM psychology professor who, they are told, “was teaching apes to talk.” When the real Guy Schermerhorn stands up and is joined onstage by Sam, the juvenile chimpanzee he lives with as part of a national “cross-fostering” project, Aimee feels “as if a door that had been closed all her life had suddenly swung open.” She goes to bed that night dreaming of walking “hand-in-hand with this little creature with the big ears and clownish gait and the eyes that said, Here I am, come and get me.”
In no time, Aimee is interviewing to be one of Guy’s assistants, moving into the campus housing he shares with Sam and starting a romantic relationship with the professor, who is 32 years old to her 21. The true object of her affection, though, is Sam, who at the age of 3 can sign more than a hundred words and understand many more. He has not seen another chimpanzee since he was taken from his mother at 2 weeks old. “Sam had no idea he was anything but human, which was the whole point,” Aimee observes.
To Guy, Sam is a “ticket to bigger things, like a full professorship, a book contract and TV, more TV.” If only Guy can keep Sam from biting people in the face, his department chair from pulling the university out of the project and Dr. Donald Moncrief, the director of the cross-fostering program and the chimp’s actual owner, from taking Sam back and selling him off to biomedical researchers.
Do you see where this is going? If not, Boyle helpfully flashes ahead to Sam’s incarceration in Moncrief’s “chimp barn” in Iowa, where the terrified animal waits “in the onrushing unstoppable cataract of now” for Aimee to rescue him from the cartoonishly evil scientist. In the novel’s most ludicrous scene, Moncrief forces an intransigent chimp to kiss his ring, a gold signet adorned with “a pair of intertwined snakes with tiny rubies for eyes.” The dialogue that accompanies this act is just as inane, and not worth repeating here.
As the story races forward, with Aimee and Sam on the run, fresh ideas get left behind. “Talk to Me” is not just set four decades in the past; it’s stuck there, too. Reading this book can feel like rubbernecking at history while essential evaluations of humanity’s relationship with other species are taking place elsewhere.
During a year in which the horrors of the Anthropocene become more apparent by the day, it’s unfortunate to encounter a novel that riffs on our mistakes while not quite reckoning with them. That it comes from Boyle, whose work is rich with provocative and masterful warnings about crossing Mother Nature, is doubly disappointing. It didn’t have to be this way.
Jake Cline is a writer and editor in Miami.
Talk to Me
By T.C. Boyle
Ecco. 352 pp. $27.99