Book 11 of my #20booksofsummer, Review no 169


Progress has slowed on the blog in recent weeks, as work has ramped up to crazy levels and I’ve been working till late every day, though some time off is in sight.

I finished Talk to Me by T. C. Boyle a while ago, but haven’t had time to write the requisite review until now (I don’t write a post for every book I read, but this is one of my #20booksofsummer, so it needs a short post).

Earlier I’ve mentioned my liking for some of T C. Boyle’s earlier work (particularly the acid-laced novel Outside Looking In), and Talk to Me, published this year, focuses on something that I have had an enduring interest in: chimp communication studies.

When I was at university I studied linguistics, and we briefly focused on efforts to teach language to animals, in particular through chimp studies using American Sign Language, to test the bounds of animal cognition and, even more interestingly, animal consciousness.

Perhaps the most famous study involved a chimp called Nim Chimpsky, a play on name of Noam Chomsky, the well-known linguist and political scientist, who first conceived the idea that humans – uniquely – are born with an innate mechanism for processing and creating highly and regularly structured language, encompassing a broad range of concepts from the literal to the most abstract. Chomsky’s influence featured strongly on my university syllabus, and my tutor Jamal Ouhalla wrote a book building on Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar (and dedicating it to me and my class mates).

Anyhow, the 1970s Nim Chimpsky experiment didn’t work out for the chimp: although the animal appeared to be able to communicate, by the time the study was over he had matured into a strong and potentially very dangerous male, and despite his emotional attachment to his caregivers was at one stage sold to a medical testing facility. A fascinating chimp biopic – both heart-breaking and heart-warming and based on a book about the Project Nim experiment, was released in 2011.

Later during my second degree (in psychology this time), we touched on Jane Goodall’s work with chimp communities – whose savagery can be quite startling – and which inspired William Boyd’s best novel Brazzaville Beach.

Talk to Me focuses on a young university academic and psychologist, Guy Schermerhorn, who raises a chimp, Sam, with the help of volunteers. Sam likes pizza, McDonald’s, gin and a spliff, and forms a strong bond with Guy’s pretty student assistant (and soon girlfriend) Aimee. He learns to communicate fluently with sign language, but things get complicated when funding dries up and Sam is reclaimed by his owner, the cruel eye-patch wearing Dr Moncrieff. From there it all gets a bit Thelma and Louise.

The book is engaging and nicely paced, and lightened by humour, and adds to the small collection of novels out there based on the premise of “chimp as pseudo-family member”, and until now best-represented by We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.

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