Just who is T.C. Boyle?
In the iconoclastic author’s latest novel, ‘Talk Talk,’ a deaf woman becomes the victim of identity theft — but that’s only scratching the surface
By Julie Riggott 07/20/2006
T.C. Boyle has created a menagerie of imaginative characters in his 10 novels and eight collections of short stories, from a man who falls in love with a primate in “Descent of Man” (1979) to a student who becomes one of the first assistants of controversial sex researcher Alfred Kinsey in “The Inner Circle” (2004).
The main character of his latest novel, “Talk Talk,” is a deaf woman named Dana Halter, who becomes a victim of identity theft, and is also pretty unusual, only in ways that are perhaps not so obvious.
“I think we’re all very horrified by the idea of identity theft more so than someone stealing our car, which is bad enough, because we want to distinguish ourselves, not be anonymous like the other 6.2 billion people in the world,” Boyle said in a recent phone interview from Rhinebeck, NY, where he’s promoting his latest work. “We are known by who we are and who our family connections are, and we try to protect that.
“But apparently, identity takeover is rather common. What’s amazing about this subject is, while I’ve been writing the book and now touring with it, almost everybody whom I talk to and say it’s about identity theft says, ‘Oh, that happened to me,’ or ‘Oh, that happened to my best friend.’ It’s so pervasive.”
It’s a consequence of our expanding technology, Boyle believes. Recently, reality mirrored fiction when someone hacked into the message board on Boyle’s Web site (www.tcboyle.com) and brought it down for a week and a half. For Boyle, the solution may come at the expense of other things we take for granted in this country.
“Already, I know that for some countries, sending people to the US at customs, they have to undergo a retinal scan so we are certain who they are, and I would think very shortly, everybody in America will subject themselves to a retinal scan for every purchase,” Boyle said. “Anytime you make a purchase with a credit card, we know that’s you. Anytime you come through customs, without doubt we know that’s you.
“Of course it’s a violation of privacy. If you look at what the current administration is doing in terms of individual rights and privacy, it’s pretty much gone. In fact, in a cynical way, I’ve decided that the purpose of life — what is the purpose of life? — well, it’s to buy products. … We have no privacy because we’re tracked in every possible way demographically so that somebody can sell us something.”
“Talk Talk” begins with Dana being pulled over by police for running a stop sign. A routine check on her license brings up a list of crimes, so Dana is arrested and spends a few nightmarish days in jail. When she gets out, she loses her teaching job for having missed classes. Full of anger at the stranger who has sent her life into a downward spiral, she convinces her boyfriend, Bridger Martin, to join her in efforts to track down the man who has taken over her identity and committed crimes in her name.
“When they eventually show up at William “Peck” Wilson’s condo by the beach in Northern California, he flees in his new Mercedes — purchased with Dana’s credit, of course — with his girlfriend and her young daughter. Dana and Bridger follow him all the way to New York to discover his real name and then notify the police.
Though there’s a cross-country chase and plenty of tension given the uncertainty of what Peck — who we learn has already spent time in prison for seriously injuring his former wife’s lover with his tae kwon do skills — is capable of, the book, like Boyle’s other fiction, defies easy classification.
“This is not a thriller,” said Boyle. “I want to defeat your expectations because otherwise I would be a hack. … I don’t read thrillers, but of course I’ve seen many thriller movies, and, you know, there’re always people stabbing one another and then they pop out from under the bed with nine knives in their backs, and I’m just not interested in that sort of thing.”
What he is interested in is usually a little weightier. And the theme of his latest sociological satire is identity and how it’s defined.
A chance bit of information from his dentist gave Boyle the idea of making his identity theft victim deaf. Apparently, the patient before him had been a beautiful deaf woman.
“Well, when I discovered that my heroine was deaf, it opened up the book for me in terms of what is language in terms of identity. How do you know who you are? Well, you know who you are because you’ve been acculturated and because you have language.”
Dana’s arrest, her dealings with police in New York, even simple things like ordering food on their cross-country trip, are complicated by her deafness. Conversant mostly through sign language, her vocalizations are strained, causing strangers at various times to see her as retarded or crazy, revealing just how precarious identity really is.
Boyle, who has expressed depression about the state of humanity many times before in his writing and in interviews, still feels that sense of doom will never lift. While some might find that cynical, Boyle believes it’s just being realistic.
“Let me ask you,” he said. “Do you really think anything is ever going to get better as long as there are 6.2 billion people? Don’t you see that the wars we are fighting now are for resources? It’s just going to get worse; it’s utterly tragic and I have no solution. I’ve been writing about this for a long time.”
That pessimism doesn’t completely dampen his spirits. What The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani has called “his merciless sociological eye” is always paired with a sense of humor that is often biting and razor-sharp but also highly entertaining.
On the phone, Boyle’s conversation was as breezy and honest as his prose and punctuated with humor. He was in a buoyant mood, having spent the morning walking in the woods with an old friend. The weather was surprisingly comfortable, not the muggy conditions he expected having grown up in Peekskill in New York’s Hudson Valley.
Boyle, who turned his sites from music to writing and graduated from SUNY Potsdam in 1968, said, “I reinvented myself, and here I am, doing what I want to do in life. I adopted my fancy middle name [Coraghessan] and went out and became a writer.”
Whatever disadvantage he felt for having been raised by parents who were uneducated and alcoholics, Boyle eventually traded his own drug addictions for a compulsion to read and write. He earned a master’s degree at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Ph.D., also at the University of Iowa. In 1978, he was the first writer hired at USC to teach creative writing. He founded first a minor and then a major and continues to teach in the program, which is one of the most popular in the nation. His books have brought him critical acclaim and numerous literary awards, including the PEN/Faulkner Award and Prix Medicis Etranger.
“I completely changed who I was and what I am. I think that is the American Dream: Anybody can do anything,” said Boyle, who has returned to that theme many times in his work and did so in dramatic fashion in 1995’s “The Tortilla Curtain.” That book, which is a wrenching look at the privileged and the illegal immigrants who live amongst them in Topanga Canyon, a rural enclave between Malibu and the San Fernando Valley, is currently required reading in California high schools.
Even with an issue such as illegal immigration, which is now receiving increased national attention, Boyle doesn’t think that novelists should preach politics. If they want to prescribe answers, they should write an essay instead, he said. Issues such as this are too complicated for pat solutions.
“I’m giving both sides of the issue, and I’m letting you decide. I am against dehumanizing any class or race — that’s preposterous and it’s racist and it’s wrong. On the other hand, if you’re a sovereign country and you want to be a sovereign country, then you must have regulations — illegal immigration makes legal immigration a mockery. But, as [‘The Tortilla Curtain’] points out in its subtext and on a Darwinian level, we are animals, just as the coyotes are animals, and we will go where the resources are in a world of ever-dwindling resources, and no border or nationality will mean anything to anybody.
“It brings into question the whole idea of national identity: what a nation is and what it should be or can be. Or is it even possible to have nations anymore?”
Boyle’s fiction always leaves you thinking. The ending of “Talk Talk” does too. So, don’t expect the justice served up in a typical crime thriller. Defying tradition and expectation is just this self-proclaimed “iconoclast and punk’s” style.
“As an American raised in a time of dubiety [the ’60s],” Boyle said, “I have been allowed to question everything …, which is not possible for a large segment of the people of the world, and even in this country — you have a received opinion, you have text, like the Bible or the Koran, and anything that deviates from that is false.
“Well, anything that I’ve been told by anybody, I’m skeptical about and try to form my own opinion. And I think that’s what’s great about being an American. … If we weren’t irreverent, we would be marching in lockstep with our great leader.”