T.C. Boyle’s Talk Talk, Part Three

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The table spins round and round. Where she stops, nobody knows! Today, Megan Sullivan and Gwenda Bond throw their respective hats in the ring. Previous discussion: Part One, Part Two and Part Four.]

Megan writes:

Ed and Dan, you’ve both obviously read a great deal of Boyle’s previous books. It’s interesting to see how you both picked up on things that never even occurred to me because I have no such experience. I am a Boyle virgin — or was for that matter. I had always thought much like Dan said: “Early in Boyle’s career, he 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… and would do so with every writing pyrotechnic available.” But I also kept meeting people who swore Boyle was one of the greatest authors writing today. I’m glad I’ve finally started reading him because he does seem to love both wordplay and great characters.

Ed, I think your question about whether or not Boyle relied on coincidences too much is a good one. I think he did to a certain degree, but I don’t know that the book suffered too much for it. If anything, this book seemed implausible from the get go and required a certain leap of faith. You both mention Dana and Bridger’s finances as they travel cross country. Exactly! Where’s all the money come from? Also just the plausibility of being able to track Peck down so quickly. Maybe I am underestimating the technology, but at least when they lost them in the car at the beginning of the chase and happened to find them again later on the road? Far fetched.

But beyond all of that, I still kept reading. What I liked about this book was that it was a novel of ‘ideas’ and was still immensely readable. Perhaps Dan is right when he notes that Boyle seems like the kind of author who writes about whatever interests him, regardless of genre or not. I can see him reading an article in the paper about identity theft and Boyle taking that idea and running with it. How else do you explain Peck? He seems more sympathetic toward the “villain” Peck, than to the victims Dana and Bridger (I say almost).

In the beginning, you’re supposed to empathize with Dana, I think, as she’s being arrested. Poor deaf girl, victimized again, or something like that. Yet as the novel progresses, Dana’s character is more fleshed out. She’s full of anger and rails against Bridger when he fails her basically by being human. She’s also very Don Quixote-esque in her pursuit of Peck. Nothing gets in the way, until the end when Bridger gets hurt and she sees what her pursuit has wrought.

Dan, I think the topics of of identity theft and language went well together. Having no voice can be construed as something like having no identity (perhaps to those who have their hearing anyway). What were your thoughts on the topic?

Sorry to cut it short, but I have to run off to an appointment and I want to get this sent off without more delay.

Gwenda writes:

Similar to Megan, I had only limited experience with Boyle’s work prior to this. I read The Road to Wellville in high school and then Drop City a couple of years ago, but nothing more (other than a stray interview or essay here and there about teaching writing). Reading this novel was a strange experience for me, because I did most of it waiting around an emergency room on a Saturday night — the heightened nature of the novel matched the surroundings almost as if I’d planned it (even though it was a coincidence — more on those later).

I too was blown away by the first few chapters. I think literary fiction has a somewhat justified reputation as often starting off slowly, deemphasizing the narrative. Dana’s arrest and subsequent incarceration, and to a lesser extent Bridger’s experience not being able to help her, are showstoppers. It takes, as they say, cojones to kick off a novel so strongly, because where do you go? How do you top that beginning? And, really, I think he doesn’t.

Talk Talk is a fine novel that borrows lots of thriller conventions, including motoring at a break-neck pace designed to discourage too many questions about the why and how of things happening that are credulity-straining. For the most part, Boyle pulls that off — especially, for me, when he’s holding on Bridger and Dana. I can believe their irrationality. The coincidences and actions that seem to just be needlessly risky on the part of Peck Wilson were much harder to buy for me (you’re busted for stealing Dana’s identity so you steal her boyfriend’s? you agree to take your fiance who doesn’t even know your real name to your mother’s house? the only justification that I can buy for these behaviors is the old cliche “he wants to be caught,” and I don’t believe Peck does).

Dan found the Peck Wilson character more engaging, but after those opening chapters I was more drawn to Dana. The biggest problem I had with the novel as it progressed was losing the immediacy of Dana’s point-of-view. She seemed less and less present as the novel went on (and this is likely intentional, I realize, and tied to the inability-to-communicate theme) and several times I was surprised by the order and point-of-view Boyle chose to reveal certain scenes in. This is particularly the case with the climactic scenes after Bridger is injured. It felt like Boyle became less interested in Dana as the novel went on, and far more interested in the male leads. I would have preferred more Dana. It’s her story I ultimately wanted to experience, after the devastation she suffers at the beginning.

I love the energy and flow in the writing, which I’m taking is a hallmark of Boyle’s. It marries especially well to the thriller plot, although, yes, some of the questions we’re left asking — where did Bridger and Dana get all that money? — the writing is simply not quite pyrotechnic enough to stave off. But almost. I suspect that one of the things Boyle’s trying to do here is mirror just how out there some of these identity theft cases become for the people involved, but in fiction the kind of coincidences and brazenness and hunches that people experience in real life mostly don’t come off believably. Dana’s sudden sixth sense that allows them to catch the criminal faux nuclear family eating at the restaurant after they’ve lost them is a prime example. That’s a tough sell and doesn’t quite make it. Emotionally, though, I think Boyle manages to get the reader to buy most everything, including the deep flaws in all the main characters. (Though, again, Peck is still somewhat of an enigma to me — his characterization is either too complex for his base motivations or not explicit enough to make his actions completely buyable.) They’re all stubborn and self-involved to varying extents at different times in the story. The self-entitlement issue is definitely something they all struggle with — and that includes Bridger, though to a far lesser extent than the others.

As for literary writers dabbling in genres more openly… There’s just not the stigma that there used to be. To a certain extent, it’s happening because it can, with no ill consequences or injury to the writer’s literary reputation.

One Comment

  1. As for marrying literary writing and genre, leave it to TCB to put his own spin on all the styles…and that is what makes me come back for the next one and the next one, unpredictable in its predictability. How about those words you aren’t sure are even words…cracks me up.

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