Chad Taylor

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National Radio Book Club

This broadcast runs once a month on New Zealand's National Radio network. The 07 November episode was devoted entirely to Electric. The following is a transcript of the first part of the broadcast.

Gordon McLaughlan: Welcome once again to National Radio's Book Club. The panel has this month been reading Electric the fourth novel by Aucklander Chad Taylor - a man who was very briefly what one could call "promising" because by book two he'd clearly become a writer who'd matured with remarkable speed. Electric is published in London by Jonathan Cape and there's no doubt now that Taylor has found a niche amongst the very best sophisticated thriller writers. With me on the panel this month are Lindsey Dawson and Stephen Stratford. We'll discuss Electric among ourselves; go to two other readers and finally Chad himself.

Electric is set in Auckland where a data retrieval expert employed by an IT company gets entangled with two mathematicians who live in a kind of twilight world sodden with drugs and alcohol. In fact, just about everybody in this novel is saturated with chemicals of one sort or another to the point where you wonder at the reslience of the human body and brain.

Two things especially impressed me about Electric: the first is that the author doesn't play games with the plot but gets on with telling the story directly and with clarity; and the second is the pace of his prose. Lindsey - it's not an easy book to put down, is it?

Lindsey Dawson: It sure isn't. I got engaged with it right from the car crash in chapter one because you wanted to know what happened to these pretty crazy people. This is a very cool book, isn't it? It's about very cool people. And it's bleak and it's sentimental and a lot of it's quite despairing. But even so, you're so hooked up with these people right from the start that you want to know what happens to them.

GM: It's probably because I like all those qualities that you're talking about - being unsentimental and cool. I think it's fantastic. Let's dwell for a moment on the prose. This kind of speed isn't as easy as it looks, is it - to get the prose rattling along at that kind of pace. It reminds me of the American thriller writers of the 30s and 40s. The best was James M. Cain who wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce and Double Indemnity. You need the active voice, short sentences with the longer ones thrown in for a change of pace - it's quite difficult to do. For example:

I didn't want to sleep. There was too much travelling through my veins, not all of it chemical. She kept talking to me as I lay there... She popped the phial under my nose again. She pushed it up her own nostril and snorted and her eyes rolled back, pushing tears down the sides of her cheeks. Breathe, she said. [p. 121]

I just love the way it rolls forward. It's so crisp.

Stephen Stratford: That's very unflashy writing, isn't it? It doesn't call attention to itself but it's doing all sorts of sophisticated, tricky things underneath, and you have to go back and read those sentences again. You think, "how did you do that?" I find it quite astonishing. It's like - I was thinking of Raymond Chandler, that kind of comparison, rather than Cain. Sam the central character is a truth seeker. He goes down the mean streets and tries to recover truth, and that's his job in data retrieval - but there's the same kind of parallel there in the writing. [The writing] propels the story forward. I think it's an extraordinary technical achievement to do something like that. It's like sleight of hand.

GM: And it looks so easy.

SS: It does. But that's the kind of thing, I think, which is hard writing. I'd love to know how many drafts this goes through because there's a lot of work that goes into this.

LD: I think it's interesting too that this is being published in London because this is a very New Zealand book. You know how in London they still sort of think that we're in the colonies and living how things were thirty years ago. And yet the Auckland which he describes, which is set in the drastic power cuts of a few years back, sounds almost like something out of the movie Bladerunner: it's dark and treacherous and we're talking about drug running and prostitutes and things. And yet there's also a very fond New Zealandness to it too, in a way, because at one point the plot shoots off to the west coast where one of the characters is holed up in a bach - and so Londoners have to know what a bach is [laughs] - so there's this other sort of writing which Chad is very good at, too, when he's describing this bach on the west coast:

The place smelled of salt and Coppertone and sandalwood and wind-dried sheets on the bed and the dust of old cushions faded by years of old holidays. [p.72]

GM: It's extraordinarily economical.

LD: And any New Zealander knows exactly how that feels, but over in London people reading that too are presumably getting a feel for a different sort of New Zealand. And so it's a book, actually with great variation in its setting. It's not all that cold, hard stuff. Underlying it there's a fondness for New Zealand as well.

SS: Absolutely. There's a marvellous chapter where the trio go over the Auckland harbour bridge and they go to the Chelsea sugar works -

LD: [laughs] Yes.

SS: - and they go swimming. And the description of what it's like to jump in the water - you're down for too long and then you come up and surface; the way he describes how the water looks and feels, and that whole experience - it's just marvellous. And again, very economical: it doesn't hold up the action. But it's marvellous.

GM: so the economy is striking. It could be set anywhere though. I think the urban setting. I think the thing to remember is that we know Auckland quite well, but I think any reader anywhere could regard this as a satisfactory urban setting. But there's nothing esoteric about it at all.

LD: No.

GM: The characters themselves are also urban people, aren't they?

LD: They're really interesting. There's a trio, mainly, and they're intellectuals. We've got the woman who's a specialist in fluid dynamics which are algebraic formulae describing "the reflection of a wave in a closed basin" - we're talking high art here. And there's Jules, the mathematician, and Samuel, the data retrieval specialist. These are very 21st century people...

GM: I had a bit of trouble with the waves and the turbulence theory, I confess. I just assumed the author knows what he was talking about. (laughs)

LD: I assumed too. There's a wonderful few paragraphs too about why mathematicians make very bad soldiers, and there's a whole list of famous mathematicians in history and the various ways in which they took part in various wars very badly, so Chad must have presumably researched all of that. It makes you realise how much research goes into every good book - it's just slipped in there, quietly and smoothly.

SS: That's also an example of the humour in the book too, because that's quite a funny passage, isn't it? It's heavy on fact but quite sly humour - it's very New Zealand, that understatement.

GM: We've had quite a run recently of books - of novels in the last six months which are what you'd call "literary". They require an enormous amount of concentration just to work out what are the time sequences are, what the character interactions are, just to work out how the plot moves. One of the appealing things about this book is that every now and again you get the feeling that you'd like someone to tell you a straight story from start to finish, and I did get this feeling [with Electric]: I was exhilarated that suddenly I was reading a story that told itself. It took itself seriously, it did not play games or tricks - it just wanted to engage you with a story. And that's why I think he's going to be, or is already, very successful and is going to continue to be very successful because people like that. It's a wonderful way to rivet your attention.

LD: It's a pacy book with lots of meat. You could easily read this in row 57 of a Jumbo jet heading off to Los Angeles. It's got enough pace to carry you along over a long flight or in a hammock over summer, but it does have some depth and some meat and a lot of thinking that's gone into it in the background. I mean, the novel's called Electric and there's a sentence right at the end of the book which reveals how much thinking he's put into it:

Electricity permits us to live unnatural lives: to live nights like they are days, winter like summer... [p.192]

And that the whole thing is a metaphor for the crazy way in which we lead our lives. We've become out of touch with nature and the seasons and things because we don't have to be anymore. Technology allows us to lead these mad lives.

SS: I was very impressed with that passage, too. [The author] does always bring the metaphors back to his central themes. There's as much attention to that aspect of the writing, and the surface and the style, as there is in any other literary novel. Just because in some ways it's a thriller - not in every way: just before the end you get the revenge and you get a man with a gun coming in through the door. It's as literary as anything else I've read but it's got the pace of a straightforward story, as you've said. I think this is why a lot of people who read literary fiction turn to reading crime: for pleasure. For the old fashioned virtues of plot, character, setting...

07 November 03 (excerpt) © 1997-2016 Chad Taylor