Friday, June 29, 2012

Book Review: Talk, Talk by T.C. Boyle

 Talk, Talk
A Novel by T. C. Boyle

Wild Child
A Novella transmitted through T. C. Boyle by
 Dana Halter, the heroine of “Talk, Talk”

(Blogger Note: This review was previously published in The LAMLight, the physician newsletter of
 Wild Child has subsequently been published as part of a short story collection.)

If the caption above intrigues you, well it should.  If you have never read anything by T. C. Boyle, then you have truly missed unique reading experiences.  This author has been called “America’s most imaginative contemporary novelist” by “Newsweek” magazine and “one of the most inventive and verbally exuberant writers of his generation” by “The New York Times.”  In my opinion these accolades underestimate the importance of Mr. Boyle.  He has written wildly entertaining historical fiction based on exceptionally eccentric characters such as Alfred Kinsey (The Inner Circle), C. W. Post and and Will Kellogg (The Road to Wellville) and Stanley McCormick, schizophrenic heir of the farm machinery fortune (Riven Rock).  He has written science fiction (Friend of the Earth) and stinging stories exposing current social dilemmas such as illegal immigration (The Tortilla Curtain).  In Talk, Talk, Mr. Boyle examines the modern phenomenon of identity theft.

The skeleton plot of Talk, Talk is superficially mundane.  A young California school teacher named Dana Halter is stopped for a minor traffic violation and is immediately arrested for several outstanding warrants from adjacent states.  She is caught in a Kafka-esque bureaucracy and spends a weekend in jail.  When it is finally determined that Dana is a victim of identity theft and not the perpetrator of these many misdeeds, she and her boyfriend Bridger Martin, a graphic artist working for a Hollywood special effects company set off on a cross country chase to confront the thief and set the record straight.

What make this story so thoroughly unique and intriguing are the characters.  Dana Halter is completely deaf, a result of meningitis in early childhood.  Her speech is difficult to interpret, often causing strangers to surmise that she is mentally deficient.  She stubbornly refused to consider cochlear implants, preferring to develop her communication skills with other methods.  Her ability to lip-read and sign deteriorates when she is stressed and agitated, which she becomes more of as the story progresses.  Bridger truly loves Dana for who she is, but as their search becomes more frenzied and Dana vents her frustrations on Bridger, their relationship suffers.  William “Peck” Wilson is the identity thief who lives the high life using stolen credit and shell game purchasing techniques.  He fluidly changes his identity depending on the circumstance.  His live in girl friend Natalia is a former mail order bride from Eastern Europe who moves in with Peck (who she knows as “Dana”) and thoroughly enjoys the American consumerism-crazed lifestyle.  Their relationship deteriorates also as Natalia becomes very concerned over just who her boyfriend really is.  She fears truthful confrontation because she does not want to jeopardize her way of life.  How people (couples especially) communicate and fail to communicate in this modern world becomes a main theme.  Dana and Bridger have problems because of Dana’s deafness.  Peck and Natalia mis-communicate because of Peck’s dishonesty and Natalia’s misunderstanding of idioms and expressions.  The other issue which comes full circle in this story is: What is identity in today’s world?  In Bridger’s world he can change the identity of a character in a movie with the click of a mouse, substituting an actor’s face for a stunt double’s and even putting a human face on a futuristic monster or super hero.  Dana can be jailed and have her entire life altered because someone has nefariously used her identity.  Peck can shed the life of a violent lower class criminal and drive the latest Mercedes coupe, live in an opulent ocean side condo and dine at the finest Los Angeles restaurants by doing a morning’s research in the public library and using readily available data to assume fraudulent identities.

      This brings us to Wild Child.  Dana teaches high school English in a school for hearing impaired children.  She is also an aspiring novelist and throughout Talk, Talk works on this novella.  It is published in the Spring, 2006 issue of “McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern.”   This publication is the brainchild of author Dave Eggers and is bizarre and innovative in its own right.  The Spring issue arrived at my home in a cigar box crammed with extraneous documents such as a 1890s legal services ad, a 1950 air raid defense brochure from the Civil Defense Administration and a 2002 Department of Defense memo authored by Donald Rumsfeld.  The main character in Wild Child is a 12 year old who was abandoned in the wilds of post-Revolution France and left for dead.  He managed to survive and is eventually recaptured by well-meaning peasants.  Attempts are made to “civilize” the wild child and to teach him how to communicate with his fellow humans.  A young scientist makes the education of Victor (as he becomes known) his primary endeavor.  He devotes all of his energies to instructing Victor how to recognize shapes and then letters.  He tries to instruct Victor how to form sounds and how the sounds represent objects.  These lessons take years to reach even rudimentary success.  The frustrations of the teacher and the pupil are documented throughout this poignant story.  Wild Child is a fascinating story in its own right.  Read in light of the themes elaborated in Talk, Talk makes it even more intriguing.  Understanding that T. C. Boyle has written this from the frustrating perspective of a deaf-mute character of his own creation is fantastic.  Each story succeeds independently, but each also enhances the understanding of the other.  These are the works of true genius. 

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