Sam is the smart chimp in T.C. Boyle’s latest novel
T.C. Boyle imagined the mind of a chimpanzee for his latest novel.
In “Talk to Me” (Ecco, $27.99), the acclaimed Montecito author tells the story of Sam, a chimpanzee who’s part of language experiments overseen by Guy Schermerhorn, an animal behaviorist at a fictional Santa Maria university.
Sam knows American Sign Language, and he’s so good at signing words and so adorable that Guy would like to put him on NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”
But Sam needs a babysitter to change his diapers and keep him out of mischief. Guy finds that in Aimee Villard, a shy university student, and hires her. The young woman and the chimpanzee grow fond of each other, and Aimee becomes like a mother to Sam. But there’s trouble ahead when Dr. Moncrief, the breeder who owns Sam, wants him back for biomed research.
That sets the stage for a novel that examines the ethics of animal experimentation and looks at the relationship between humans and the world of animals.
“Can you imagine raising a chimp as a human being without seeing any of his own kind and believing he’s a human being and learning our language?” Mr. Boyle said.
That’s the question posed by “Talk to Me,” the longtime author’s 17th novel. He will discuss it during a Zoom chat at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Hosted by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the virtual talk will allow fans to ask Mr. Boyle questions. (See the FYI box.)
“Talk to Me” will be released Tuesday and will be sold at stores such as Chaucer’s on upper State Street in Santa Barbara.
Mr. Boyle said he expects it will be available at Tecolote Book Shop in Montecito as well.
You also can pre-order copies now at amazon.com.
Before writing “Talk to Me,” Mr. Boyle did some research, which included reading about Nim Chimpsky, a real-life chimpanzee who learned sign language in a 1970s Columbia University study called “Project Nim.” Mr. Boyle also went to the Los Angeles Zoo and observed the behavior and hierarchy of the chimpanzees there.
“They’re individuals much just like human beings are individuals,” Mr. Boyle said. “They have their own communication. They have their own consciousness.”
He learned that chimpanzees such as his fictional Sam have the mentality of a 3 1/2-year human child.
“Like any other kid, he doesn’t want to go to school,” Mr. Boyle said. “He doesn’t want to do what he’s supposed to do.”
But chimpanzees are still wild animals.
“They’re much more powerful than a human being,” Mr. Boyle said. “That’s why when they become adolescents, they’re no longer used in experiments. They become too dangerous.”
At the same time, readers can feel empathy for Sam, who suddenly faces the loss of the only life he’s known, a human one in a loving home, and is thrown into a cage.
“If you root for Sam, I think it’s because we love animals,” Mr. Boyle said.
“We are fascinated by other animals because we are animals, and we need other animals in our lives,” he said.
Various parts of “Talk to Me” are written in first person from Sam’s point of view, which the author said posed a challenge.
“My job has always been to inhabit somebody else’s point of view,” he said. “It was a little bit of a leap for me to do so for another species.”
Mr. Boyle has Sam referring to other life forms as black bugs. The author said he bases that on the real-life study with Nim Chimpsky, who called his fellow chimps “black bugs” because he didn’t know what they were. “He didn’t know they were one of them.
“One of the delights for me was to have Sam come to understand that he is not human,” Mr. Boyle said.
He noted chimpanzees can communicate with each other just fine without learning human language. “They have gestural language. We talk about body language, and we use it. But they have exclusively body language and various grunts and so on. They don’t need to be like us.
“They were perfectly adapted to their environment before we destroyed their environment and put them in cages,” Mr. Boyle said.
“Talk to Me” isn’t the first time Mr. Boyle has written about chimpanzees. “My first book is called ‘Descent of Man, after the Darwin title. I wrote it as a student in Iowa in the early ’70s,” he said. “I dreamed up a comedic triangle between a woman who cares about a chimp, a researcher and a very brilliant chimp named Conrad. It was done for hilarity.”
Mr. Boyle went on to explore environmental issues in his novels, including efforts to help the endangered Channel Islands Fox in his novel “When the Killing Ends” (2012).
He said he has written about two-thirds of his next novel, “Blue Skies,” which explores climate change and the issue of nature fighting back against humans.
“My aim is not to raise anyone’s consciousness,” Mr. Boyle said. “My aim is to produce a work of art and by doing so, raise my own consciousness and see how I feel about these issues.”
In his novels, the author has demonstrated a willingness to let his characters take him on a journey and guide the story.
“The magic for me in writing fiction is that it’s an adventure, and I never know whether it will work or not,” Mr. Boyle said. “When it does, it makes me feel exhilarated and makes me want to do it even more.”