[EDITOR'S NOTE: Here begins this week's roundtable discussion of T.C. Boyle's Talk Talk. Our first participant was none other than Dan Wickett, who offers this opening salvo. Part Two can be accessed here. Part Three is here. Part Four is here.]
Talk Talk is T.Coraghessan Boyle’s 11th novel and I believe it maintains some traditional TCB aspects. There is a running theme through Boyle’s work that humans are, like all other animals, part of the food chain – both predators and prey, and Talk Talk, with the storyline of a deaf woman having her identity stolen by an ex-con continues that nicely. There is also the steady, wonderful, description of nearly every meal eaten throughout the story, as the not-so-hidden foodie in Boyle can’t help but leech its way into his writing. We also have our usual need for reading Boyle’s work with a dictionary next to us on the couch as he tosses words previously unfamiliar to me at least, Exopthalmia, autophagic, and others with similar numbers of syllables, throughout the work.
Early in Boyle’s career, Boyle was frequently accused of being a writer more concerned with flash and not with substance. He was often described as a writer with incredible skill, willing to write about anything (as in say his short story, “Heart of a Champion,” where Lassie allows a randy coyote to chew little Timmy’s hand nearly off and then runs away with the coyote, or “The Champ” a story about a round by round heavyweight championship between two eaters) and would do so with every writing pyrotechnic available. This accusation, or complaint, was still being lobbed, unfairly in my opinion, at Boyle in what at this point would be considered the middle of his career (novels such as World’s End through The Road to Wellville and the stories being written at that time).
Ever since The Tortilla Curtain came out though, he’s been given a higher standing in the literary community by national critics (though the earlier World’s End did win the PEN/Faulkner award, it wasn’t until The Tortilla Curtain that the majority of critics didn’t toss in a line or two about Boyle’s writing flamboyancy on a regular basis) – seeing his novel Drop City named as a finalist for the National Book Award and receiving the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction.
Even while being considered a more mature writer, Boyle has still usually maintained the inclusion of a fairly significant level of black humor in his work. I thought Talk Talk was different in terms of that from even his most recent prior efforts. The humor throughout seemed more insider humor – the deaf woman, Dana Halter, whose identity is stolen has a boyfriend, Bridger Martin. Bridger works at Digital Dynasty, a CGI company and there are a lot of little inside shots at the industry and those working in it. But the humor, to me, is nowhere near the level of dark, insidious humor Boyle is typically known for.
This led me to wonder if, in suppressing this aspect of his writing, Boyle may have learned towards favoring the darker elemented characters in Talk Talk? What ensues after an incredible opening chapter where Dana Halter is pulled over for a routine traffic citation and goes through an Ed Champion-like experience of being dragged to prison, which leads to she and Bridger finding out her identity had been stolen, is a cross-country chase as they believe the thief is headed to Peterskill, New York (home to previous Boyle works and believed to be a fill-in for the place of his growing up).
Boyle rotates sections of this chase between what is going on with Peck Wilson, the thief, and his family, and scenes of Dana and Bridger traveling. I found myself counting the number of pages remaining in the Dana and Bridger sections, anxiously awaiting getting back to Peck’s story. Could Boyle possibly have subconsciously made the “bad” guy in the story the most interesting character while nearly eliminating black humor?
I’m also curious to hear everybody’s thoughts on Boyle’s meshing of two pretty big topics – identity theft and the idea of language and conversation that he created by having the initial identity theft victim being deaf. Was it a good blend, or were there two stories within that could have been served better tackled in individual efforts? More from me on that later, but I’m looking forward to hearing all of your initial thoughts on Talk Talk.