A man walks into the dark, crowded streets of a foreign city and disappears. The city could be anywhere Shanghai, Los Angeles, Paris. It could be anywhere except Auckland.
Perhaps that man is Robert Marling, the problem-gambler architect from both Chad Taylor's 1994 novel Heaven and his latest creation, The Church of John Coltrane. Perhaps that man is Taylor himself, walking the once-dingy alleys, bars and wi-fied cafes of London's Soho.
Taylor has left Auckland, his home and the setting of almost all of his books. He plans to leave it behind in fiction as well.
In 1993, when he was not quite 30, Heaven was published and so well received it became a movie. Pack of Lies was written first, but published second. Both were backed by small, local presses.
Then, in 2000, hot UK publishing outfit Canongate picked up Taylor's next novel, Shirker, translating it into French, German and Italian. The respected Jonathan Cape imprint published 2003's Electric and Departure Lounge in 2006. The Washington Post called Departure Lounge "smart, original, surprising and just about as cool as a novel can get".
Now, in 2009, The Church of John Coltrane has been published by Taylor's loyal French publisher, Christian Bourgois, but so far no one has put up their hand for an English-language edition.
Coltrane returns to the world of Marling, whose father has died and left him a large jazz collection and a pile of questions. He wanders the streets of Auckland in a funk trying to find answers.
The book has been positively reviewed in several European publications, including Swiss Le Temps ("boy wonder") and the French Sud Ouest ("sublime"). Bibliosurf.com compared Taylor with Haruki Murakami, French author Patrick Modiano and Raymond Chandler.
Taylor's modern, neo-noir style and subjects clearly appeal to the French. He also has a lot of fans at home. Electric is being scored as an opera by Warwick Blair.
But still no English-language publisher. What's wrong with Taylor?
Well, for starters, he divides the critics. The Press said Departure Lounge's characters were "one-dimensional" while the Dominion-Post said they were "well-drawn". Critics are fickle, readers are fickle, publishers can be fickle. Canongate head Jamie Byng told the Sunday Star-Times in 2006 that he picked up Shirker in 2000, but passed on Electric because he "just didn't feel passionate enough about it".
Iain Sharp, in this newspaper, called Departure Lounge stylish and assured, but also hinted at some cultural diffidence. "Despite the wealth of specifically Auckland references, Taylor's antecedents seem more American than New Zealand. With his noirish sensibility and ambitious philosophic reach, he comes across more like the grandchild of Ernest Hemingway and the cousin of Paul Auster than the descendant of Katherine Mansfield or Frank Sargeson."
While a Sargeson fellowship helped produce Electric, Taylor has been absent from New Zealand's major awards. Perhaps he's not considered literary enough. And being a cult writer in New Zealand is a sure path to penury.
After reading Coltrane in manuscript, we asked him a few questions. Somehow we kept coming back to the elephant in the room: Auckland. Has Taylor's loyalty to the city, which he has said elsewhere he will stop using as a setting, been counterproductive for his career?
"Artistically, I feel good about it," Taylor says. "They've all come from the same place. Commercially, it's been very difficult. I underestimated how difficult the setting made the novels to sell to publishers.
"You can't sit down and chart out what's going to sell and colour it in, which is, frankly, how it feels when you walk into a bookstore nowadays. I'm in London now and I walk into Waterstone's and walk out empty-handed every time. Bookstores now are duller than record shops in the 90s."
In Coltrane, Marling is, loosely speaking, in a rut. His life, career and relationships are grinding down and grinding him down. Almost from the start, the reader is waiting for him to leave. To just get up and get the hell out of Auckland.
Taylor is open to the suggestion there are synchronicities between his and Marling's situations. Marling's dead father has even written a lost book in French, setting up some of the questions that need to be resolved.
"Oh, sure. There are similarities," Taylor says. "Coltrane is a bit of a mid-life crisis novel. Which is an unfashionable topic nowadays, but that's where I was so that's where the story went. Oddly, of all the main characters I've created, Robert Marling was always the least like me, which is why I felt comfortable returning to him. The character needed to be older, and in my mind he had aged since Heaven he'd literally gathered dust on the book shelf."
The joke about the manuscript only ever coming out in French came back to bite him, Taylor says.
"I wanted to write a book where very little happened. There's a lot of plot in there but it's folded away like an army cot: what drives the novel is Robert's sense of frustration and boredom. This may make it frustrating and boring for some readers but, f–- it, life's like that sometimes."
Taylor says Departure Lounge, a deeply moving novel about the Erebus crash, is about absence how an empty shape defines the remaining presence. Coltrane, though, is about things going in circles, about failure, and drifting. "We're still talking about the book, right?"
So why didn't Marling leave?
"Robert has already left. His actions reveal a man who's manifesting his mental absence in the physical world. He's dismantling his life, piece by piece. He's lost his relationships and so goes out to lose his material possessions and markers as well. Emotionally, he's drifting into a surreal view of the world. He's jet-lagging before he's left."
Taylor says he wanted each chapter to be short and dream-like, but also rooted in the banality and oddness of real life.
OK, let's take another tack. Are Taylor's novels some kind of reverse literary nationalism experiments in what can be done in a New Zealand setting as opposed to attempts to define a New Zealand literature?
"That's not for me to say. I didn't approach them as experiments," he says. "They're just my novels. I just sat down and wrote them. I wanted to write about the city environment and the sort of stories that throws up.
"All cities are international. All port cities, anyway. I think port cities are where all the strange and good encounters take place."
As to "nationalism", Taylor says he's wary of that literature. "You doubtless intend it as a critical tab but in New Zealand the concept is bordering on a stricture. New Zealand writing is whatever New Zealand writers want it to be."
Taylor says he knew Coltrane would be a hard sell. He says his French publisher liked it and the others didn't "simple as that". He acknowledges that going to market in a recession only made it harder.
So how does it feel to be away from the city of his novels?
"Being away helps me to write. I'm a homebody. I like the security of belonging but I've never had that, really. Wish I did, but that's just how things have worked out. Travelling forces me to think. Distance gives you licence to push things further. Which is why Robert Marling goes away – he just has to move."
We're still talking about the book, right?
Taylor has drafted two new novels, but has put them aside. He is now working on a collection of noir stories set in Los Angeles. He doesn't know what their chances will be but he's having fun with them, he says.– by Mark Broatch and Rob O'Neill, Sunday Star Times August 2009