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T.C. Boyle on America’s Identity Crisis

USC College professor’s 19th novel, Talk Talk, explores deaf culture and identity in the 21st century.

By Pamela J. Johnson
January 1, 2007

T.C. Boyle on America’s Identity Crisis

It’s easy to see why an author as rare as a red wolf would be fanatical about protecting his uniqueness.

Coupled with the fact that he’s also a chronic worrier, it somehow makes sense that T.C. Boyle’s 19th novel, Talk Talk (Penguin Group, 2006), would explore the horrors of identity theft.

A thriller, this tale differs from Boyle’s classical works. Equal parts Hitchcockian, Kafaesque and Borgesian, the novel is an unconventional page-turner about identity and the role language plays in the 21st century. It’s also about love and isolation — whether self- or society-induced. And some of it is hilarious.

“I worry about everything that’s going on in the world,” Boyle, Distinguished Professor of English at USC College, told a packed room during a fall reading held as part of USC’s Visions and Voices series. “In fact, I read the L.A. Times every morning and I just want to shoot myself.”

Granted, it would be futile to try to feign the identity of someone as distinctive as Boyle, whom critics have called the most imaginative novelist of our time.

From his curious middle name — Coraghessan — and his eccentric hair and silver ear clip to his satirizing folk tales of feral cats and ravenous alligators, his novels about xenophobia and environmental destruction, he’s a writer seemingly from another galaxy.

Still, Boyle — who regularly shreds, burns and brings to the recycling center all of his personal papers and documents — became fascinated by the widespread crime of identity theft. “Why is it so disturbing to us?” he wondered. “What is our identity to begin with? How do we know who we are? And why is it so important to be an individual?”

He concluded that each of the approximately 6.5 billion human beings on this Earth share a desire to be regarded as unique.

“We all have hopes and ambitions,” said Boyle, who joined the USC College faculty in 1986 to establish its creative writing program. “We want to be recognized as individuals and we protect that identity that we’ve developed.”

Boyle was meditating on all this the day he visited his recently divorced dentist.

“My God, there was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen sitting in this chair before you,” the dentist told Boyle. “And you know what? She was deaf.”

The idea triggered Boyle’s imagination.

“As soon as he said this to me, well, of course he got out the jackhammer and the drill and the rest of it,” Boyle told the students. “I closed my eyes and began to understand that my heroine was going to be deaf.”

Shortly afterward, Dana Halter, a deaf schoolteacher and the protagonist in Talk Talk, was created.

Talk Talk follows the misadventures of Dana, whose peaceful life with her earnest, artist-geek boyfriend in San Roque (a mythical Santa Barbara) crumbles in a case of mistaken identity when she is jailed for crimes she did not commit.

To make matters worse, her boss fires her for missing work as a result of her mistaken incarceration. Outraged by the injustice of it all, her anger turns to fury. The chase is on. She and her boyfriend Bridger set out to find the true perpetrator in a trip across America that tests their love and may succeed in knocking the chip off Dana’s shoulder.

Later, by phone from his home near Santa Barbara, Boyle conceded that his dentist might not have been actually drilling his teeth while he brainstormed a deaf protagonist.

“It might have been a teeth-cleaning,” Boyle said. “But the story is true. That’s when the idea of deaf culture entered into it and the book opened up for me.”

Boyle realized that a story about identity theft would be more intriguing if someone stole a very special identity, one that the majority of beholders fiercely guard and seek to preserve.

“We’re always worried about ethnic divisions and national divisions,” Boyle said. “But in one sense, everybody who can hear is of one culture, as opposed to everyone in the world who can’t hear. … Even if science can allow cochlear implants, many, many deaf people refuse to have them because that would destroy their identity. Their culture stands in opposition to our hearing culture.”

While conducting research, Boyle visited Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the nation’s leading college for the deaf. After sharing some of his ideas, one student angrily predicted: “You’re just going to do as all novelists have done with deaf people. She’ll be a victim.”

Boyle’s protagonist is no pushover. Dana Halter is an attractive, smart, devoted, literature-loving teacher. But she’s deeply flawed. She is angry, bullheaded and smug.

She is unrelentingly protective of her deaf identity, yet she’s uncomfortable in her own skin. She routinely sees a speech therapist to “keep herself sharp” and practices speaking in front of the mirror. She muses that the world would be a better place if everybody was deaf.

But if someone detects she’s deaf after she speaks, she becomes agitated and feels insulted.

The man who steals her identity, Peck Wilson, is equally as complex. Although clearly amoral, he’s not entirely repugnant. He garners some sympathy when we learn he’s using Dana’s money to support a woman and her daughter, after he’s lost his own daughter.

Knowing he lost the right to see his biological daughter after assaulting her mother’s boyfriend, however, reminds us that he really is a bad guy. He has a strong sense of entitlement and no conscience.

Boyle — who has written several books about historical figures of the 21st century such as corn flake cereal inventor Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and sex researcher Dr. Alfred Kinsey — is intrigued by the narcissistic personality.

“Like a typical criminal personality, the narcissistic personality is self-aggrandizing,” he said. “It’s also the kind of personality that gurus have and, of course, novelists have. Many fascinating people are like this. And I keep exploring it to see what it’s all about.”

For his next novel, Boyle digs into the turbulent life of Frank Lloyd Wright. Boyle, who lives with wife Karen and their three children in a 1909 home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, said his 20th novel about the women in the life of the famous architect was inevitable.

He keeps picking the brain of the narcissist to see where it may lead.

“Not so much with Peck [in Talk Talk], but with Kellogg and Kinsey and now with Frank Lloyd Wright, what is the danger to the audience,” he said, “to the follower of the guru?”