‘Talk’ by Kathe Koja
Author: Lawrence Schimel
July 21, 2009
Talk is both the title of this novel and of a controversial play that the students at Faulkner High School put on. The novel is told in alternating stream-of-consciousness chapters between the two leads of the play: Kit Webster, a gay teen who discovers himself over the course of being in this play, and popular Lindsay Walsh, former Harvest Queen and unequivocal queen of Faulkner Drama (not to mention Drama Camp and many other theatrical activities in which she takes part and excels). In between these points of view are snippets from the play itself, where the lead characters, Reed and Lola, are respectively an interrogator and a detained member of the resistance, a freedom fighter in an unidentified but all-too-universal struggle.
Koje inverts the stereotype of the theater-obsessed gay male while making a larger point about acting and gay identity; Kit has auditioned only as a dare from his best friend, Carma, the only friend to whom he has formally come out. But it turns out that he is a superb actor. When people are so surprised that he has no prior acting experience, Kit thinks to himself (but not yet aloud) that of course, he’s been acting every day of his life, acting as straight, still struggling with the closet and which side of the door he wants to be on, even as he admires and is infatuated with a fellow student, the openly-gay Pablo, a jazz musician who was the school’s Harvest King the year before.
What is so refreshing about this book is that while the character’s sexuality is such an integral part to Kit’s point of view and his reactions to the events that happen, it is almost tangential to the core of the book, which is a book about the searing power of truth and the many masks we wear to avoid confronting it, about who has the authority to police or control what information or content is appropriate for adolescents, and how such content or information is addressed, suppressed, decided, or negotiated.
While Kit does wind up coming out (or rather, is outed) during the course of the novel, Talk is much more a larger coming of age story, both for the protagonist and also, to some degree, for the community in which he lives.
Instead of using the play as a vehicle to create a forum in which to discuss and debate the issues the drama deals with, the school and the entire community becomes polarized, resulting in a riot during a rally for free speech in support of the play, which has been moved to an off-school venue after it has been banned by the school knuckling under to the pressure put on by a vocal few parents.
Much to her credit, Koje eschews a facile happy ending, while still leaving the reader with enough resolution to be satisfied with where things ends. The very ambiguity is, in many ways, the point of the book: how instead of trying to suppress dissent, we should use controversy as a learning or teaching moment.
I hope that this book might be used to create exactly such a forum that is lacking from the school and the community depicted within its pages.
Paperback, $6.99, 134p