A new novel focuses on the plight of a young deaf woman who is trying to track down a man who stole her identity.
“Talk Talk” by T.C Boyle. (Viking)
By Lisa Weisstuch
What strikes terror into the heart of society changes over time. Consider the panic the atomic bomb set off in the 1950s or AIDS and HIV did in the 1980s, and how many artists addressed them in their work. The buzz these days focuses on crafty criminals hacking databases and rummaging through trash bins to purloin identities.
Identity theft is the crime around which T.C. Boyle’s “Talk Talk” revolves — rather, whirls. Boyle has made his mark on contemporary American fiction with stories about the underbelly of American society: “The Tortilla Curtain” deals with illegal immigration; the satirical “Road to Wellville” makes fun of the fitness craze. His eleventh novel is a page-turning tale of financial scams, sleazy villains, and innocent victims. The car chases would set James Bond’s heart aflutter. It feels as if the book was written to be adapted into a screenplay (rumor has it that it’s already been optioned by a film studio). Still, despite the cinematic quality, Boyle has not sacrificed any of his hallmark character development, brainy word play, or social commentary.
At the outset, Dana Halter, a deaf high school teacher with a PhD in literature, is rushing to a dentist appointment. She’s pulled over by a cop for running a stop sign and hauled off to jail because, the policeman informs her, she’s wanted in several states for a laundry list of crimes she never committed. Once she’s finally assigned a sign language interpreter and endures demoralizing days in a cell, she has a hearing and convinces the judge that someone else is acting in her name.
In her silent, everyday world Dana is accustomed to feeling alienated. But in this Kafkaesque nightmare, she encounters bureaucratic cogs — judges and cops — who disregard how she was victimized by guards and other prisoners. Worse, they let her go without offering any solutions for putting her name straight in the eyes of the law. Back in civilian life, she loses her job and is pursued by bill collectors demanding money that’s overdue on accounts she never opened. Eventually she takes matters into her own hands and convinces her devoted, well-intentioned boyfriend, Bridger, a computer animator, to hunt down her doppelganger.
That man, William “Peck” Wilson, is an ex-con who learned the art of identity infiltration while in jail. He was arrested for trying to ruin his ex-wife’s husband. The novel is told from the alternating perspectives of Dana, Bridger, and Wilson, who goes by the many names of his victims. To Natalia, his materialistic Russian girlfriend, he’s known as Dana. The reader comes to know him as ex-restaurateur who ruins others’ lives so he can fill his with the finer things — houses, luxury cars, fancy dinners — effortlessly.
Wilson lives out his American Dream by ruining the lives of Dana and Bridger. The anxiety generated by the goose chase doesn’t come from threat of physical danger or elaborate conspiracy theories. Boyle grounds the tension in everyday fears — Bridger is worried about upsetting his gruff boss; Dana confronts prejudice and overwhelming fiscal concerns.
The chase takes them from San Roque, California to Peterskill, New York, a canvas on which Boyle paints a portrait of what it’s like to live in a profoundly silent world, especially when life hits crisis mode. Without indulgent stylistic contrivances, Boyle evokes the intense sensory details of a silent world, a community that has its own communal language.
The book’s title comes from the “talk fests” Dana and her deaf friends used to have in school when they would accompany their sign language with “people speaking aloud in a way that was all but unintelligible to a hearie, a kind of sing-along moan that underscored the signs. Talk talk. That was what happened when the deaf got together, a direct translation into English — they talked a lot, talked all the time, talked the way Bridger was talking now, only with their hands…..When deaf get together talk talk all the time. Communication, the universal need. Information. Access. Escape from the prison of silence. Talk, talk, talk.” Boyle’s linguistic concerns emit faint Shakespearean echoes. (Think: Words, words, words.) Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the Bard’s talent for flashy endings — the fast-paced plot ends with a thud.