New novel by t. C. Boyle: he wants a cheeseburger

Do monkeys have a sense of humor? That’s what T. C. Boyle, the California king of clever conversation, explores in his new novel, "Talk to Me."

Seems to be a fan of Jane Goodall: T.C. Boyle Photo: Britta Pedersen/dpa

One feels directly ashamed of his genre when thinking back to the time T. Boyle refers to at the beginning of his new novel "Talk to Me." A time when chimps were dressed in shirts and ties, put a fag in their mouths and donned sunglasses to be paraded on the talk show "Ronny’s Pop Show" for the laughs in between.

Sam, the chimpanzee from Boyle’s novel, also becomes famous through a TV show. What makes him special is that Sam is learning sign language in a research program at the University of California, and his mentor is psychologist Guy Schermerhorn. He demonstrates on the game show "Tell the Truth" how Sam can use sign language to make food requests: "He says he wants a cheeseburger." The audience roars.

It’s the early eighties in which Boyle sets the action; Guy has quartered the chimp at a ranch in Santa Maria and is looking for a new caretaker for him. He finds education student Aimee Villard, who establishes an almost symbiotic relationship with the ape from the start. She also begins a relationship with the professor.

Guy wants to achieve great things in behavioral science, but he also dreams of appearing on Johnny Carson’s talk show. Fame is his foremost motive. But when new, highly regarded studies emerge suggesting that language acquisition is something purely human and his research project is nothing but "delusion and wishful thinking," the project’s backer, Moncrief, halts the program. He puts Sam in cages with other research animals on a farm in Iowa; he is now to be used for animal experiments. But Aimee travels after him – against Guy’s will. And wants to save him.

T. Boyle: "Talk to Me." Translated from the English by Dirk Gunsteren. Hanser Verlag, Munich 2021, 352 pages, 25 euros.

T. Boyle, Californian king of clever entertainment and prolific writer, returns to a theme that he already dealt with in satirical form in his very first collection of stories: The story "Death by Drowning" (1979) is about a chimpanzee who translates Darwin and Nietzsche into his own artificial language and hooks up with a woman named Jane Good. Even then, it sounded like Boyle was fascinated by the behavioral scientist Jane Goodall.

Goodall’s connection to "David Greybeard" (as she named one of her chimpanzees) is now recalled in the nurse Aimee’s relationship with Sam. The human treatment of animals is a recurring preoccupation for Boyle, who is "mostly vegetarian," as he writes on Twitter, including in "When the Slaughter is Over" (2012).

Stun guns and stun guns

How researchers:in particular encounter man’s evolutionary ancestor is a major theme of this novel. Sam is brutally torn away from his mother for research purposes ("It had been disturbing, actually disgusting, but Guy had been so bent on getting a chimpanzee that he had closed himself off to this feeling"), the animals are maltreated with stun guns and stun guns, project leader Moncrief only wants to get as much benefit (= money) as possible from the animals anyway.

On the other hand, Boyle is interested in approaching the consciousness of monkeys. He achieves this primarily by choosing different narrative perspectives, predominantly telling the story from the point of view of Aimee, Guy, and Sam himself. In the passages written from the chimpanzee’s point of view, Boyle raises all the questions concerning primate perception: What is their memory like? What is their perception of space and time? Do they feel pleasure and shame? Do they have a sense of humor? Can they love and hate? Do they feel jealousy?

Narratively this works well, the dominant thoughts in the monkey’s brain are written in capitals, and there are notes every now and then about which words Sam can sign and which he can’t: "He knew the word HAPPY. It was a good word, maybe not as concrete and immediate as PIZZA or COLA, but good, very good, and sometimes he would sign it spontaneously […]." Boyle’s fine sense of humor is evident in many a place.

The plot focuses primarily on Aimee, who initially continues to care for Sam in the cage and, not particularly surprisingly, frees him toward the end. She escapes with him to a campsite in Arizona, Guy follows her to persuade her to return, Moncrief is also hot on her heels. The novel becomes a road movie.

Boyle drags the plot out a bit, the characters are clearly drawn, ambivalences are rather few. Nevertheless, one feels well entertained without this undermining the serious intent of the novel.

Finally, Boyle is right when he has Guy ask in an interior monologue, "What had actually changed in the two hundred years since Claude Bernard cut open live dogs on the operating table to demonstrate the workings of the internal organs, except that nowadays such experiments were done behind closed doors?"

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