Talk To Me – John Kenney

Summary:

A modern tale, about a powerful white male brought low through a combination of his bad behaviour, social media, and life circumstances.

Main Characters:

Ted Grayson: The 59-year old hero and villain of the story, Ted is a news anchor who reaches into 8m US households every weeknight. Outwardly, he has it all, money, family, success and respect in his chosen profession. Inwardly, well…

Claire Grayson: Ted’s wife, disillusioned with how her life has turned out. She has met someone else, and wants a divorce.

Frances “Franny” Grayson: The only child of the family, now thirty-something, she has quite a lot of anger, and a deep need for fatherly love and approval.

Minor Characters:

Henke Tessmer: Franny’s pig-ignorant boss, a billionaire whose main source of pleasure is the misery of others.

Natalia: A young Polish immigrant, she becomes the target of Ted’s attack. Her friends post the rant online, but she maintains her dignity, and does not seek to profit from the situation.

Plot:

The story opens with Ted, who is currently sky-diving, and as we are to find out the rest of his life is also in freefall at this time. Ted is the star of his own mental movie, and as he falls he reflects on how he got to this point. And then, like a live broadcast, we jump to Ted in “the days before”.

Ted has been a journalist for thirty-plus years, and as a TV news anchor has occupied “the chair” for the past two decades. His face and voice were a standard backdrop of most US homes, and as a result he has become famous and immensely wealthy. His TV career really started in the late 90’s, and has been contiguous with the rise of social media. Over the years, he has reported from all over the world, and met with the great, the good and the downright evil. The Pope even bummed a smoke off him!

His career required everything from him so, while he married beautiful Claire, and had Franny, his subsequent promotion to “the chair” meant increasing amount of time away from his home, his family. Over time, his relationships died, for want of him nourishing them. He is now facing divorce from his wife, and to describe the relationship with his daughter as dysfunctional would be kind.

Ted is also having doubts about the quality of “his” news, as the network sacrifices quality in search of ratings. His numbers are good, but slipping, and his demographic is getting older. All of this is playing on his mind, when he gets enraged at a minor mistake done by an  young female intern. This rage is compounded by some mis-interpreted hand-signals and body language, resulting in him unleashing a stream of profanity at the young Polish immigrant, Natalia. Unfortunately for Ted, this expletive-laden rant was caught on at least one phone camera.

Practically overnight, Ted becomes the news, and this never ends well for someone in his position. Predictable online morally-outraged trolls stir the masses, and Ted becomes the poster-boy for abusive white male privilege.

Ted is absolutely excoriated on social media. His rant goes viral (due to friends of the intern posting it on Facebook or YouTube, then through alerts getting picked up by various news channels). Social Media is vitriolic, unforgiving, relentless, and completely free of any journalistic integrity or even a nod to any obligation to check facts. Ted’s life is thrown into the voracious maw of a world, lusting for more scandal, more public shaming, more reasons to gloat.

Is Ted blameless? Of course not. Is the reaction to his rant proportional? I don’t think so. Everyone makes mistakes, but now, in the internet, always-on world there is no time to apologise. As one of the characters says, the internet age has no mercy, and doesn’t forget.

As the novel unfolds, we see Ted slowly spiral downwards from the Olympian heights he once occupied. The author skilfully writes how social media pressure deeply impacts on lives. However, the author subtly makes the point that today’s hero/victim can be easily tomorrow’s villain, i.e. those that seek to use social media to destroy someone, or make an example of someone, can easily find they are playing with fire, and have social media turn on them (Henke Tessmer, for example).

Ted undergoes a lot of introspection, and his vaguely acknowledged regrets at the novel’s start become front and centre in his  life. He is deeply remorseful about how he allowed his family to slide through his fingers, and his non-relationship with them hurts deeply. There are a lot of happy early memories, and he tries to pinpoint the moment when it all started to go wrong.

What I Liked:

  • The characterisation of the main players. I really wanted to see what would happen to Ted, and his family. He made a stupid mistake, and got severely punished. How did he survive it?
  • The author’s theme of forgiveness, for example the scene between Ted and Natalia (his vitriol target) at the end. This is humanity’s hope. I liked the scene between Ted and Natalia at the end.
  • The measured, considered view of social media. Initially demonised, and not too flatteringly portrayed, it can also be a vehicle for community, and redemption.

What I Didn’t Like:

  • Some of the minor characters really had just one dimension, which made them somewhat unbelievable.

Overall:

I really enjoyed this book, and would recommend it. I found myself empathising with Ted in certain respects, especially his regrets over his personal relationships. While what he did to the intern was wrong, and happened in an instant, he was unable, and really not allowed, to properly atone for his action, and paid a huge price. However, he had neglected his wife & daughter over a much longer period, but was able to work towards redemption with them.

The writing was good, the storyline moved well and the plot was convincing. The author offers a good debate around the power of everyday social media, and how easily people can be manipulated. We are in an era of fake news, and this is just the kind of novel to point that up.

Acknowledgements:

My thanks to the author and Penguin First To Read, who sent me a free copy of the book in return for an honest and objective review.

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