John Kenney Explores the Ascent of Cancel Culture and Sensationalist Media in His Latest Novel, ‘Talk to Me’
We’ve seen it time and time again, especially in recent years, parallel to the increasing popularity of social media: the tragic descent of some of our favorite and most trusted celebrities as they fall prey to cancel culture. All it takes is one small slip-up, and suddenly their lives are shattered. John Kenney tackles this new and strange phenomenon in his new novel, Talk to Me.
Kenney dissects this strange enigma of the still unripe twenty-first century — an era still finding its footing in regard to all the channels of information that are now available to us — crawling deep into the crevices of this topic and exploring it from the POV of Ted Grayson, the latest victim of cancel culture.
All it took was one bad hair day and suddenly Ted Grayson was the pariah of network news television. After losing his temper and verbally abusing an innocent makeup artist on set, Ted Grayson goes viral. As the tale unravels, in patterns we’ve seen, again and again, his whole life — his legacy — is tossed out the window like trash.
Talk to Me’s brilliance lies in Kenney’s masterful walk-through of what led Ted to commit the blunder that would cost him his legacy. Even though the only thing people will see is a deranged white man yelling obscenities at a migrant female employee, Kenney finds it imperative to show us that Ted’s life doesn’t come down to the one mistake he made on an ill-fated day. He shows us what those at home clicking and sharing the video of Ted losing his temper don’t see: that it was more than just a bad hair day. It was Ted Grayson’s wife leaving him, his daughter’s constant rejection of him, his upcoming fifty-ninth birthday, the lethargy that comes with doing the same thing every day for many years, his disappointment in the decline of journalism and the search for truth as a form of art.
Kenney is also careful not to victimize Ted Grayson. After all, he did verbally abuse and humiliate a woman whose only mistake was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We accept that he did something wrong, but his misstep is, arguably, not in proportion to the price he pays.
Underneath the story of Ted Grayson is a more important, cutting analysis of the times that we are living in. Talk to Me is the reflected truth of what humanity has become capable of in the thriving age of communication. Though the internet and social media has opened doors and given a voice to many who have never had one before, though it has helped us find unity to fight for better ideals, every yin has its yang. The power the internet gives people has also become corrupted, giving way to journalism outlets focused on sensationalism, new forms of bullying and, among many other things, this new phenomenon that we call cancel culture.
Kenney meticulously weaves important messages about the decline in reliable journalism and the rise of cancel culture together with the inevitable midlife crisis of a man that has peaked and then has his life’s work diminished. As Ted Grayson puts the pieces of his life back into perspective, Kenney reminds us, whether purposely so or not, that we need to get back to basics and remember the things that matter, the things that make us human.