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Talk to Me by John Kenney

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on January 15, 2019

“I made a mistake. I apologized.” Why isn’t that enough? Ted Grayson, a long-time network anchor, asks that question after a bad birthday leads to a moment of bad behavior. The aftermath spirals out of control. The incident says something about Ted but it does not reflect a pattern of behavior. Balanced against a distinguished twenty-year career, the incident seems, if not trifling, at least an aberration. Should Ted be fired? I don’t know. And I like the fact that Talk to Me presents that question in a way that allows the reader to consider the pros and cons without demanding a knee-jerk decision.

Ted is depressed because nightly news anchors are unimportant in the internet age. He feels he is “a vapid, empty shell of a person, with no real relationships and little to no integrity” who had “given up long ago on being a journalist.” Ted lives entirely inside his own head, which is not a pleasant residence. He substitutes petulance for an expression of honest feelings. He loves his wife and daughter and he shows his love in his own way, but it isn’t in him to give them the constant attention and affirmation they crave. He is far from being a sociopath, but he has never been good at empathy or kindness. His ability to distance himself from life is why he can be an objective news anchor.

Ted’s wife, Claire, offers a first-person soliloquy about marriage and the (in her view) inevitable deadening of spirit caused by accumulated years of monogamy. She wants to be the only priority in her husband’s life despite enjoying the fruits of his demanding career. She doesn’t want to recognize that the new man she met after all those disappointing years, the one she’s counting on to save her life, is just another man who will inevitably fail to meet her long-term demands. But he’s happy and attentive, at least for the moment, and Ted isn’t, so that makes the new guy attractive. It is easy to see Claire’s point of view, just as it is easy to understand Ted’s.

Ted has a meltdown on his birthday during a commercial break. He calls a young intern a Russian whore because she has broken his rule against standing in his line of sight. She is actually Polish and has given Ted no reason to question her character. In true corporate fashion, the network fires the intern because she responded by giving Ted the finger. But the network is old media and it doesn’t realize that everything that happens in the world is captured on someone’s cellphone video and eventually ends up on Facebook or YouTube, where privileged men who never stopped being frat boys will laugh at it while decent people will be appalled.

The story, as they say, is drawn from the headlines, but unlike Matt Lauer or Bill O’Reilly, Ted does not have a history of abusing women. His wife doesn’t like Ted much, but she knows he’s not a misogynist. He’s just a guy who is coming apart at the seams. The reader is therefore left to wonder whether an uncharacteristic but ugly incident of inappropriate language should cost Ted his job. I assume different readers will have different opinions, which is one of the reasons Talk to Me tells such a fascinating story.

In fact, while Ted is plagued by his own demons, the novel refuses to demonize him. His teenage daughter is a mess, but the extent to which Ted is to blame is unclear. Ted might behave like an asshole, but doesn’t act like a privileged asshole despite the wealth and prestige that comes from being a network anchor.

The novel contrasts old media with internet reporting by introducing Henke Tessmer, whose website operates on the principle that objective truth is unimportant. Clicks are important. Clicks generate advertising revenue. The more outrageous a story might be, the more clicks it will receive. Responsible journalism, according to Tessmer, is a thing of the past. Website owners make their own rules. Adults should take responsibility for deciding whether a story is true, a view that leaves Tessmer’s website free to disguise click-bait lies as news. Clickeat emptor is Tessmer’s motto.

Ted’s daughter Franny works for Tessmer. Her reaction to the viral video of her father — and Tessmer’s request that she write a story about it — kicks off another plot thread that will contribute to Ted’s destruction. Claire’s reaction to the video kicks off another. None of the characters in Talk to Me are entirely sympathetic — Claire and Franny are intensely focused on their petty complaints about Ted and seem oblivious to the harm they have caused him — and none are without fault.

The novel touches on a variety of timely issues. Misogyny. Underrepresentation of women in the news media. The clash between free speech and morally offensive speech. Whether hecklers should be empowered to prevent people they dislike from explaining their actions. Whether campuses should disinvite unpopular speakers in response to student or faculty protests. Whether there are, or should be, any rules in the age of the internet. Whether social media, designed to promote interaction, has ironically raised the heat level of discourse to a degree that makes it impossible for people who disagree to talk to each other. Whether society is now so sanctimonious that none of us are allowed to make a mistake. Whether the collective willingness to forgive mistakes has been lost because the internet has become a permanent, easily accessed record of those mistakes. Whether self-righteous commentators and bloggers will never forgive because, secretly, they are happy that their own secrets have not been exposed.

The story tells some hard truths about redemption. It might be desirable but, contrary to what we are told in novels and movies, it isn’t always possible. Not every broken relationship between child and parent can be repaired. “Because with enough pain, with enough time, we close the door on those people and we do not let them back in.” Yet some people in the novel, generally broken people or people who are recovering from broken lives, find it possible to feel empathy for Ted, and the story suggests that in the end, forgiveness might still be the best response to sincere remorse.

Talk to Me occasionally depicts political correctness in a way that is unnecessarily exaggerated. There were times when I had the suspicion that John Kenney was trying to soft-peddle headline-grabbing misconduct that clearly merits the termination of employment by equating Ted’s transgression with talking heads who engaged in a long pattern of sexual harassment. On balance, I think Kenney took care not to do that. There are lines that need to be drawn and I don’t think Talk to Me suggests otherwise. It does suggest that not all misconduct deserves the equal condemnation that it so often receives.

There are also times when Talk to Me gains power through exaggeration. I didn’t quite buy Claire or Franny, two good people who, at times, behave atrociously toward Ted, knowing that he doesn’t deserve to lose everything important in his life while contributing to his loss. That seemed a bit over the top, but it also adds layers of drama to the story’s depth.

Bad actions should have consequences, but people generally deserve forgiveness. How can those competing values be reconciled? I don’t know the answers to the most difficult questions that Talk to Me asks. I appreciate the fact that Kenney asked them because the questions are important. I also appreciate that he asked the questions in elegant prose that he used to tell a fascinating story.


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