From bestselling and award-winning author T.C. Boyle, a lively, thought-provoking novel that asks us what it would be like if we could really talk to the animals
When animal behaviorist Guy Schermerhorn demonstrates on a TV game show that he has taught Sam, his juvenile chimp, to speak in sign language, Aimee Villard, an undergraduate at Guy's university, is so taken with the performance that she applies to become his assistant. A romantic and intellectual attachment soon morphs into an interspecies love triangle that pushes hard at the boundaries of consciousness and the question of what we know and how we know it.
What if it were possible to speak to the members of another species—to converse with them, not just give commands or coach them but to really have an exchange of ideas and a meeting of minds? Did apes have God? Did they have souls? Did they know about death and redemption? About prayer? The economy, rockets, space? Did they miss the jungle? Did they even know what the jungle was? Did they dream? Make wishes? Hope for the future?
These are some the questions T.C. Boyle asks in his wide-ranging and hilarious new novel Talk to Me, exploring what it means to be human, to communicate with another, and to truly know another person—or animal…
Release date: September 14, 2021
Print pages: 336
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Talk to Me
She wasn’t studying. Studying was what she was supposed to be doing, what she intended to do, what she was going to start doing any minute now. First, though, she had to wait for the album to finish—the new Talking Heads, with its bass-heavy rendition of “Take Me to the River,” which she couldn’t get enough of—and click through all the channels on the TV while absorbing her daily dose of disodium guanylate, autolyzed yeast extract and rendered chicken fat in her Top Ramen, which was about the only thing she was eating lately. It was cheap and fast and that was all that mattered. Not that she was happy about it—she knew she had to start eating better, but she hadn’t actually cooked anything even remotely healthy for weeks, and then it was only pasta with a red sauce out of a jar and a wedge of iceberg lettuce on the side and maybe a pickle or two. Were pickles healthy? They prevented scurvy, she’d read that somewhere. Columbus had stocked them on the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria for that purpose, but then she wasn’t on a ship at sea but in her efficiency apartment in university housing, and the problem was time. And will. Work, school, work, school—it was as if she were on a stationary bicycle pedaling furiously, going nowhere.
The Top Ramen (Lime Shrimp) was boiling on the stove. Her books were spread out on the old steamer trunk from Goodwill she used as a coffee table. She was going to eat and study at the same time, then maybe go for a walk around the block and come back and study till it was time to go to bed, which lately had been anywhere from eleven to two, depending on how bored she was and how hopeless the quest for her degree seemed at any given moment. But first she clicked the remote, just to see what was on, and the screen came alive to a scrum of earnest figures in cleats and helmets chasing a little brown ball across an expanse of gleaming grass. She clicked again: sitcom. Again: the news. Once more: game show.
The game show was one she used to watch back at home and as soon as the logo appeared on the screen she felt a quick sharp pang of nostalgia, she and her sister stretched out on the living room rug, doing their homework, their mother in the recliner rattling the cubes in her second or third vodka and soda, one Lark at her lips and the other smoldering in the ashtray. And the show, comforting in its banality, everything preordained and usual, the panel of celebrities nobody had ever heard of apart from the de facto evidence—Kitty Carlisle—straining to be witty and urbane, middle America’s entrée into a world of martinis and limos and lathered-on makeup. Three men materialized out of the shadows to introduce themselves, each claiming to be Guy Schermerhorn—two older and wearing glasses, one younger and not—before taking their seats, stage right, at the desk reserved for the contestants. The celebrity panel was seated across from them, stage left, and it was their task to determine which two were the imposters and which the original, the one telling the truth.
She didn’t have time for this, but then she did. Because the affidavit the host read out wasn’t the usual sort of thing at all—Guy Schermerhorn wasn’t the pedestrian husband of a hypersexualized actress or a race car driver recognizable only with his crash helmet on or the discoverer of a new element for the periodic table, but a researcher who, he claimed, was teaching apes to talk. She’d heard about that—they were doing it here too, at UCSM, weren’t they? And come to think of it, the young guy, the one in the middle, looked familiar, as if she’d seen him on campus, but whether she had or not, she was sure he was the one telling the truth. The other two might have had more gravitas, but that was only because of the glasses and the age difference, and of course the producers of the show relied upon deception by way of keeping the audience guessing along with the celebrity panel, otherwise no one would have bothered to tune in.
Bill Cullen—he wore glasses too, the lenses so thick they distorted his eyes—was up first and he put his question to Guy Schermerhorn Number 1, on the left. “So what was the first thing the ape said? I’m guessing it was either ‘You got a cigarette?’ or ‘Can you loan me a dime so I can call my lawyer and get out of this joint?’”
The audience laughed. Guy Schermerhorn Number 1 laughed too and then he composed his face and said, “They don’t actually talk—it’s more like sign language.”
“Oh, really?” Bill Cullen leaned into the long desk the panel shared. He was enjoying this, enjoying the opportunity to show off his wit for all those people out there in the living rooms of America and relishing the fact that he was a celebrity and they weren’t. “How do you say ‘Make mine a martini, straight up, two olives?’”
Again, the audience laughter. But Guy Schermerhorn Number 1 dodged the question with a quip of his own, as if he were auditioning for a seat on the panel. “We try to discourage them from drinking,” he said, giving the camera a deadpan look, but the thing was, he didn’t attempt any sign language, which to Aimee was a dead giveaway, even if she hadn’t already decided on Number 2.
It was Kitty Carlisle now, looking ageless in her midnight-black bouffant, though the flesh at her throat was pulled tight as a string bag. She gave the camera a catty look, then zeroed in on Number 3. “Could you demonstrate something in sign language for us—it is sign language you use, isn’t it?”
Number 3 nodded.
“How about, oh, I don’t know—‘Do you take your coffee black or with cream and sugar?’”
The man raised both his hands to the level of his chest and Aimee thought for an instant that she’d been wrong, that this was the real Guy Schermerhorn, but then, lamely, he dropped them to the desk and said, “We don’t serve them coffee.”
“Jangles their nerves?” the host put in, and everybody laughed. He was seated center stage behind his own desk, his bald head flashing under the stage lights. Aimee didn’t remember his name, not that it mattered. He was a celebrity too.
Kitty Carlisle couldn’t resist the joke. “What about Sanka?” she asked of nobody in particular—just threw it out there—before turning to the contestant in the middle, Guy Schermerhorn Number 2, with a penetrating look. “What about you, Number Two—can you tell us how to say ‘How do you take your coffee—black or with cream and sugar?’” And now a quick aside, eyes on the camera: “I mean, in case we have an ape over for dinner some evening . . .”
Guy Schermerhorn Number 2—he was the real Guy Schermerhorn, no doubt in Aimee’s mind—was in his late twenties or early thirties and he wore his hair long, parted just to the left of center and tucked behind his ears. His eyes jumped and settled and he was instantly, unshakably, calm. He used his fingers only (it was called finger-spelling, as she was later to learn), moving them so quickly and adeptly he might have been a clarinetist running through “Flight of the Bumblebee” without benefit of an instrument.
Kitty Carlisle said, “That was either the most amazing thing we’ve seen on this show—or pure gibberish. That’s not gibberish, is it, Number Two?”
Number 2 shook his head no, then the other two panelists got their chance to quiz the three men, though it was really no contest after that, and there were three votes for Guy Schermerhorn Number 2 against a sole vote for Number 1 (Bill Cullen) and none for Number 3. But wait, wait, it wasn’t over yet—instead of having the real Guy Schermerhorn stand up and take his bow, there was a surprise . . .
The backstage curtains parted and out came a chimpanzee in diapers and a polo shirt with the sleeves cut off and he wasn’t walking on his knuckles but standing on two feet and swaying side to side in the kind of gait you’d expect from a toddler, which, as it turned out, was what he was. He looked out at the crowd, which had sent up a whoop when he appeared, then at the panel and the three contestants, before letting out a low hoot and scampering across the floor—knuckles now—and launching himself over the low desk where the contestants were seated to land squarely in the lap of the man in the middle, as if there had ever been any doubt. But he didn’t simply land there—he embraced Guy Schermerhorn like a lover, kissing him on the lips and then swiveling his head around to stare into the camera as if this was all in a day’s work. His hands were moving now, first for the camera, then for Guy Schermerhorn, who returned the gesture, or a different gesture, as if he understood what the chimp was saying and the chimp understood him—as if they were truly communicating, in real time, while the whole nation looked on.
The host, his grin as wide as the screen, couldn’t resist putting one more question to the man with the ape in his lap: “What did he just say?”
“He said he wants a cheeseburger.”
The audience roared.
“Does he have a name?” the host wanted to know, riding with it now, the grin ironed to his face. The camera panned over the audience, a sea of shining eyes and open mouths, then swung back to Guy Schermerhorn.
Guy Schermerhorn spoke aloud as he signed the question to the chimp: “What is your name?”
The chimp—he was adorable, a big-eared doll come to life—made a rapid gesture with one hand before flicking the back of his ear as if shooing a fly, and Guy Schermerhorn provided the translation. “His name’s Sam.”
But the chimp—Sam—wasn’t done yet. He interjected a further comment, either in correction or addition, the gestures so rapid you couldn’t follow them till Guy Schermerhorn reprised them in a slowed-down version. “And he’s asking”—running through the gestures now, index finger and thumb to the side of his cheek, a finger touched to his chest and then his hand pushed out in front of him in an undulating motion—“‘When can I go home?’” A pause, then the real and authentic Guy Schermerhorn spun out one more sign, both palms sliding together in a horizontal clasp: “To bed.”
Behind her, on the stove, the Top Ramen was boiling over. There was a hiss of vaporizing liquid, followed by the sharp tang of incinerated Lime Shrimp flavoring, and then she was up off the couch and lifting the pot from the burner while the TV audience clapped and whistled and Guy Schermerhorn took the chimp by the hand and led him across the stage and back through the curtains. She’d been lost there a moment, gone deep—it was as if a door that had been closed all her life had suddenly swung open. This little creature with the articulate fingers and watchful eyes had not only expressed desire—to have a cheeseburger—but he’d conceptualized the future and envisioned a place beyond his immediate surroundings, which animals weren’t supposed to be able to do. She’d seen it with her own eyes. Unless, of course, it was some sort of trick. Unless he’d just been aping what his trainer had taught him.
But what if he wasn’t? Scientists were involved, weren’t they? Wasn’t Guy Schermerhorn a scientist? And what if it really was possible to speak to the members of another species—to converse with them, not just give commands or coach them in the way people coached parrots to regurgitate what they’d been taught to say? Or dogs. Good boy, roll over, doggie want a treat? It wouldn’t be like that. It would be a two-way conversation, a sharing of thoughts on the deepest level. People talked about life on other planets, but this was right here in front of us, a whole other consciousness just waiting to be unlocked. Did apes have God? Did they have souls? Did they know about death and redemption? About Jesus? About prayer? The economy, rockets, space? Did they miss the jungle? Did they even know what the jungle was? What about the collective unconscious—did it extend to apes? Did they dream? Make wishes? Hope for the future?
She didn’t know, and it probably was just some trick, but when she went to bed that night—not at one but earlier, much earlier, her books left scattered across the table and the paper for her psych class barely begun, let alone finished, typed and proofread—she closed her eyes and saw herself in Guy Schermerhorn’s place, strolling across the set of To Tell the Truth and through the pleated curtains, 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.
She didn’t believe in karma or serendipity or whatever you wanted to call it and she wasn’t superstitious, or not particularly. She was a practicing Catholic, though admittedly she could have gone to mass more often, and at the same time, whether it was conceptually incompatible or not, she believed in the observable truths of the sciences. Still, there was coincidence, there was déjà vu and synchronicity and the revolving notion that we never fully inhabit our bodies, all of which hit her smack in the face when she stepped into the psych building two days later to beg Professor Lindelof for an extension and encountered Guy Schermerhorn’s face staring out at her from a newspaper article tacked to the bulletin board in the hallway. He was right there, front and center, the little ape in his lap, in what was obviously a still from the television show. The headline read, “UCSM Professor on National TV.”
So she had seen him on campus, after all. She tried to picture the circumstances, the when and where of it—no doubt it was right here in this very building or the student union maybe, or the library—but it wasn’t working. She didn’t even know what color hair he had, though it seemed light, maybe even blond, on TV and in the newspaper photograph, which unfortunately was in black and white. Or how tall he was or whether he dressed in suit and tie or jeans and a flannel shirt like Dr. Lindelof. Her first impulse was to slip the article into her purse so she could go off somewhere and read it in private, but there were people all around her, voices swelling and clattering, the whole building thundering in her ears with the blunt force of what was happening to her, which went beyond coincidence, way beyond.
She stood there in the crowded hallway, feeling weightless and adrift, scanning the article and hoping no one was watching her, though what would it matter if they were? She was a student reading an item on a bulletin board, that was all, and wasn’t that what bulletin boards were for? The article said that Dr. Schermerhorn was an associate professor of psychology, specializing in comparative psychology, and that he was a protégé of Dr. Donald Moncrief of Davenport University, in Iowa, who’d pioneered the cross-fostering of chimpanzees in human home environments by way of studying comparative development and language acquisition. Dr. Schermerhorn was one of only six researchers handpicked by Dr. Moncrief to participate in the program nationwide and he was quoted as saying that he’d accepted the invitation from the popular syndicated television show in order to raise awareness of the research—and funding for UCSM’s own fledgling program in primate behavior.
“Whoa, look—the monkey prof. Can you believe it? He was just on TV.”
Two girls had crowded in beside her. The nearest one (bad skin, dog collar, coppery hair cut close to her scalp) she recognized from her statistics class. Aimee had never said a word to her, but then she never said a word to anybody if she could help it. 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. Public situations made her uncomfortable—that was just the way she was. She was a private person, at least that was how her mother described her, and though she was majoring in early childhood education with the notion of being a kindergarten teacher or maybe first grade, she probably would have been better off in some solitary profession, like beekeeping. Or forestry. Or writing poetry or novels, alone in her room with just the hum of her IBM Selectric to keep her company, but then she wasn’t much of a writer—the words always seemed to get garbled in her head, which was why her paper was late, and why she considered herself lucky to have gotten through Freshman Comp with a C.
“Did you ever have a class with him?” This was addressed to the dog-collar girl by her companion, who was dressed in engineer boots and a rumpled T-shirt but wore her hair long, like just about everybody else on campus.
“Me? I’m an English major.”
“But, I mean, freshman year—didn’t you have to take Psych 101?”
“Not with him—it was Lindelof. But he looked kind of cute on TV—did you see him on TV? Night before last?”
“Well, he’s got this monkey thing going and he was on To Tell the Truth. See, in the article here?” She pointed a finger at the bulletin board.
“Chimpanzee,” Aimee corrected, though she didn’t look at the girl but down at her feet instead.
The girl turned her face to her as if seeing her for the first time, when of course she’d been aware of her all along. She was the one who’d crowded in so they were standing there practically shoulder to shoulder and she must have recognized her from statistics, which at least made them fellow sufferers. “What did you say?”
Aimee shot her a glance out of the corner of her eye. “I said it’s a chimp, not a monkey.”
“Same difference.” The girl was wearing a motorcycle jacket two sizes too small for her. Her lipstick was black, her face corpse-white. This was called punk, a style that had crept up out of L.A. and begun to reach campus just that fall. The girl turned to her friend. “The monkey can talk. With his hands. Like deaf people? It was, I don’t know, weird.”
“What do you mean, ‘weird’?”
The girl in the dog collar let out a laugh. “I mean, it kissed him. On the lips.”
“Which to me is kind of perverted, actually.”
“Didn’t you ever kiss your dog?”
“I never had a dog. My father’s allergic.”
“Well, mine used to kiss me and I kissed him back. All the time.”
“On the mouth?”
“No, that’s not what I’m saying—I mean on the head or maybe his snout? A little peck, everybody does it. You should see my mom, not only with the dog, but with our cat, Bernie? She lifts him up right in front of her face and plants these kisses on his nose? And he loves it. Or at least pretends to. Believe me, he knows where his kibble’s coming from.”
“Sorry, and I don’t mean to be harsh or anything, but that’s just disgusting.”
That was when she stopped listening, not that she’d been paying all that much attention in the first place—she was still trying to focus on the article—but in that moment she noticed the flyer next to it as if it had just materialized there on the board. And in the moment after that she had the flyer in her hand and was moving off down the hall, her late paper and Dr. Lindelof suddenly plunging to the bottom of her list of priorities. The flyer said this: “Professor Schermerhorn is currently looking for students to assist in his cross-fostering project, 10–20+ hours a week. No experience necessary. Just patience and a good strong back.”
That was it—it was as cryptic as that. The only other information was a phone number. By the time she got to the nearest phone booth—in the basement of the psych building, next to the junk food and soda machines—she had it memorized.
He didn’t have a word for words, or not yet, anyway, but he knew words all the same. He knew KEY. He knew LOCK. He knew OUT. He was a prisoner, though he didn’t have a word for that either, and even if he did it would have been meaningless. What did a word, any word, have to do with this situation in this place in the onrushing unstoppable cataract of now, and the fear—AFRAID—that came with it? He had diarrhea, which existed as a pain in the gut, a stench, a hot wet squirt of shit that needed no terminology and no afterthought. He wanted his BLANKET, a blanket, any blanket. He was cold. He was distraught. He rocked from side to side. He stared at nothing. He plucked the hairs from his arms, his chin, the crown of his head, trichotillomania, and he didn’t know that term either—how could he? And what would it matter if he did? Would that get him out of here?
Sleep was his only release and it came to him in a blaze of shuffled images, the bathroom light so bright it was like the sun in the sky, a trickle of blood-warm water in the tub and the face of the one who meant most to him, whose name he’d invented in the gesture of pinching his right nipple the way he pinched hers when she was with him in the BED and they were both warm and his SHIRT was on the FLOOR. But then he woke. He always woke. To the screams and the reek and his own diarrhea and the food he refused and the din of flesh pounding on metal.
When he was thirsty, thirst came to him as a sensation, pre-verbal, non-verbal, and he picked up his cup and drained it. He didn’t think DRINK, didn’t sign DRINK, he just drank. Until the cup was empty, that is, and no one came to fill it for him. Then the word was there. And the sign, the gesture, thumb to the lower lip, descriptor and request both. And when no one listened, when the cup went unfilled and the box, the CAGE, the prison he measured over and over with the length and breadth of his body, spoke despair to him, spoke rage, he screamed. He screamed. He screamed.
In the morning that was no morning at all because there were no windows in this place and the lights never dimmed or faltered, they came with food for him, food he didn’t want, food he refused, and he compacted his own shit in his hands as best he could and flung it through the bars at them. They didn’t like that. They backed away, cursing in their alien voices, and he held one hand under his chin and waggled his fingers, cursing back at them, DIRTY, DIRTY. That didn’t help. Nothing helped. He worked at the bars with his hands and his feet too, but the bars were cold steel, the bars were immovable, and every time he looked beyond them he saw more bars and barren walls and moving shadows till he shrank down inside himself. What had he done? Where was he? Where was his bedroom, where was his house and his BED and his TREE? Where was she and why had she allowed them to bring him here?
He took it as long as he could, huddled in the back of the cell, the box, the CAGE, and then leapt to his feet, clung to the bars and screamed and screamed again, until the BIG MAN came through the door and every voice in the place fell silent. It was as if there had never been a voice except his echoing down the corridors and reverberating off the bare walls, but of course he didn’t know that word either, the acoustic signifier, only the phenomenon it represented, the physical effect that involved eardrums and cochlea and neural pathways. The BIG MAN was coming and he had the stinger in his hand, which was called a cow prod, though that formulation was beyond him too. HURT, he knew that. And he knew COW, the big lumbering night-black creature that solidified the shadows in the scrub out back of her house, of his house, the place he used to be before this. But that didn’t do him any good because the BIG MAN with one eye, with the black eyepatch that was like a hole drilled in his head, rose and swelled and touched him with the stinger and suddenly he was writhing on the cold cement floor, beyond the reach of words now . . . except HURT, except AFRAID.
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