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T.C. Boyle’s New Novel Looks Into the Mind of a Chimpanzee

TALK TO MEBy T. C. Boyle Through more than two dozen novels and short story collections, T. C. Boyle has artfully mined the self-obsessive …

T.C. Boyle’s New Novel Looks Into the Mind of a Chimpanzee

By T. C. Boyle

Through more than two dozen novels and short story collections, T. C. Boyle has artfully mined the self-obsessive foibles of baby boomers, in the process attracting a devoted cabal of readers rivaling those of Updike and Roth, two other wry observers of the fractured midcentury psyche. The result of his efforts has, more often than not, produced entertaining and absurdist yarns examining the peculiar, particular and problematic ethos of the Me Generation.

His odd new novel tills this familiar terrain, in a story told from three alternating points of view: those of a vainglorious, hip academic; his nubile, worshipful undergraduate assistant; and Sam, the rowdy chimpanzee who binds them together.

Guy Schermerhorn swims in his shallow fame as a California university professor who’s teaching his prized chimp to communicate through sign language, an achievement that has landed them on the game show “To Tell the Truth.” (If Kitty Carlisle popping up isn’t enough of a clue, you know it’s the late 1970s because everybody smokes and has a wall telephone.) Guy is convinced he’s on the verge of a scientific breakthrough — and, more important, attaining the clinquant academic celebrity he openly craves — by proving that chimps have deeper thought processes and intellectual facility than previously known.

Mesmerized by Sam’s television antics, Aimee Villard, your standard-issue sardonic, disaffected undergraduate, applies to be Guy’s assistant, and the bond between chimp and student is instant and fierce as the story quickly catapults into a simian remake of “The Miracle Worker,” with Sam as the eager-to-learn Helen Keller and Aimee his fervidly believing Annie Sullivan. Overnight, Aimee dedicates her entire life to Sam, feeding him, playing with him and sharing a bed with him — that is, when she isn’t slipping out to have sex with the oleaginous Guy.

Aimee is the kind of sullen, milky-skinned antiheroine Jennifer Jason Leigh made a career out of playing in the 1990s, and just as irritating. Though it’s made clear that Sam has given her a much-needed sense of purpose — “It was as if a door that had been closed all her life had suddenly swung open” — the motivation behind her slavish devotion to a rambunctious chimp is never meaningfully explored. She merely assumes the thankless role of Guy’s moral compass, taking increasingly desperate measures to protect Sam from other venal malefactors who see him only as a meal ticket.

As for Sam, he drinks gin and tonics and subsists on pizza, sugary cereal and the occasional lizard. When he wishes, he adroitly plays the role of sideshow curiosity, to be ogled by his audience, with Machiavellian clarity. It eventually becomes clear that it is Sam who is really in charge, the puppeteer pulling the strings of those around him. The stakes rise as he segues into more and more “human” behavior, and as Guy and Aimee confront their own Frankenstein’s monster: What happens when you can no longer control your own creation?

The book rotates among the perspectives of Guy, Aimee and Sam, and Boyle is to be commended for tackling such an audacious task: It takes courage to devote a third of your novel to the imagined, often incoherent thoughts of a chimpanzee and trust that your readers will happily tag along. Boyle’s human characters — the steely waif, the narcissistic professor, the coldhearted breeder complete with eye patch (if only he’d had a mustache to twirl!) — are deeply flawed people whose layers might have proved interesting to peel back. But their veneers remain intact, none of them plumbed in any way that makes them accessible or even mildly interesting, leaving you longing for their comeuppance rather than their redemption. That includes Sam, who in the end simply comes off as what he is: a spoiled and bratty 4-year-old.

Boyle also has a pacing issue; one minute, Sam is being “interviewed” as a possible guest on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” and the next, it’s suddenly a year later and the whole deal is dead. That’s when Boyle’s plodding narrative descends farther and farther into a rabbit hole of the minutiae of Sam’s life. For some reason, I kept thinking of the old Suzanne Vega song “Tom’s Diner,” watching coffee being poured and people kissing their hellos. The story is obfuscated even further by ill-advised distractions like the sudden appearance of a fourth point of view (from a trailer-park manager’s wife, no less), a ludicrous interlude featuring Sam’s baptism ceremony, performed by an actual Catholic priest, and a Wikipedia-ish history of J. Fred Muggs, the famous “Today” show chimp from the 1950s, that’s randomly shoehorned into the middle of the story like a feature from Parade magazine.

Why did Aimee need Sam so much? And why did he instantly bond with her, and only her, from the moment they met? How much can chimps really comprehend, learn, think? All interesting questions raised and, alas, never really answered. In the end, Boyle delivers a dour, hollow resolution that leaves you wondering what, exactly, the point of the whole escapade was: That apes are just apes? That humans suck? That science carries its own terrible moral costs? Maybe all of them. Or none of them. Without richer, more fleshed-out characters and motives, it all feels like just another cup of coffee at Tom’s diner.


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