Electric

Sam Usher is a data technician working in a blacked-out city defined by drugs and dreams. He has come close to death once and would like to try it again. When he meets Candy Strange, he finally gets his chance.

Excerpt

I was overtaking on the inside when the wheel went up on the metal and I lost control and the car spun out, spinning back across until it slammed into the motorway bridge that had been a long way ahead last time I looked but was now suddenly filling the windscreen. And then, just as fast, the driver's compartment was dusty with snowflakes of breaking glass and an enormous noise of twisting and tearing metal, and the car folded like a paper cup.

The accident backed up traffic for miles. The cop in pursuit hit his siren and started reversing down the shoulder to warn other vehicles but they were already coming to a stop as fast as he could back past them. I was watching my blood pool in the broken wing mirror and feeling the inertia spreading outwards from the crumpled saloon like shock waves, slowing everything down, bringing it all into focus.

I remember the oxygen mask being put over my lace and then everything started to feel smooth and all right. The firemen used the big pneumatic cutters to open the roof and slide me out. The paramedics cut away my clothes and then I was naked in the white sheets, bare and bleeding, and the ambulance was travelling as fast as I had been when I lost my grip on the steering.

When they wheeled me into the hospital I had a split liver and head trauma and a broken right shoulder, arm, elbow and right ankle. I was conscious going into the theatre. I knew I was going to be okay because the worst was over: I was in the clear.

And then someone phoned in the licence plate and registration and traced not my name, Samuel Usher, but the car's owner, my girlfriend, Dr Alice Mills: a resident intensivist at the same hospital where I was being spread out on the operating table like so much meat.

One of the nurses called Alice but she didn't answer the phone, so they sent someone round to find her near comatose in our bed, the onyx side table noisy with powders and prescription drugs she'd signed out herself from the hospital pharmacy.

Of the two of us, Alice was the first to regain consciousness, the first to sober up and realise what had happened. They had discovered what we'd been doing and it was over: her career, us, everything. I took much longer to catch on.

*

Alice and I met two years before when I was having one of those colds that don't go away. She made house calls if you knew the right people, which I did. Dr Alice Mills charged three figures plus the fare for the taxi which she kept running downstairs with the meter going while she looked you over. She was pale with a slight overbite and calm, grey eyes/ and fine hands that travelled across my face and chest like someone skim-reading a page.

There was nothing in my body she hadn't seen before. She depressed my tongue and asked if it was speed or coke and I nodded: yes and yes, and yes to everything else she didn't need to say. My nose was bleeding. I was having palpitations. Maybe an irregular heartbeat. She said there was a bad shipment doing the rounds. I said I could have told her that. She said I should get hold of some good stuff and wrote me a scrip for a fuck-off decongestant that knocked everything out in twenty-four hours. I paid in cash. I asked to see her again and she smiled when said it. She smiled a lot. When I first met Alice, she was a very happy person.

When we moved in together I wanted to get a bigger TV and a dog but instead we spent our money on a stereo and swapping a lot of her records over to CD. I sat through a couple of recitals before I got her into jazz. I taught her how to count through Nefertiti, late Coltrane. I like modal jazz, the way the players race through the songs, but she liked the softer stuff. She liked Johnny Hartman singing falling in love is wonderful. She had been at Auckland Hospital for eighteen months when we got our and she had dispensing authority.

I only saw the pharmaceutical supply room once. It was a large, walk-in cupboard with a combination lock on the door and shelves that reached the ceiling with every kind of drip, pill, solution and powder imaginable. She could name them all — I knew them by their effect. It doesn't matter what a phial or capsule is called. All that matters is what happens when you take it. Acceleration, slow motion, cold, warmth, relaxation: it could all be signed out on the doctor's authority.

Alice covered up for it by changing the numbers for other patients here and there. As long as the numbers added up, nobody checked. People trusted her. She kept long hours. She worked hard.

Because Alice never fucked up. She helped a lot of people and she saved lives. She gurgled with dumb, muted pleasure while we kissed and groggily fucked. She held my hand. She brought new things home to try. She introduced me to her friends. I didn't have much in common with her crowd. I was writing statistical reports while most of her friends were in medicine or hardcore research. To them, I was just some guy messing with numbers. Not that they didn't care about her, or know what we got up to when we were out of sight. A few of her colleagues had been there and others were headed in that direction. The distance between thinking about it and doing it was no thicker than a manila envelope.

Alice had a soft, singsong way of speaking. At work she would chat to her colleagues about gardening or old Hollywood movies or Chinese music — things either everybody knew or nobody would have thought of. Her cheerfulness was deliberate. It put her above the others by making her responsibilities seem easily won, but the competition wasn't to psych other people out. The competition was within herself. She wanted to go as deep as she could and still come out smiling. She wanted to be as carefree as anyone else while she dealt with things nobody else would.

Often I would stumble in on her doing her homework in the early hours, memorising reports at the kitchen table or making a call from the car to check on a patient's progress. She let me see her working but she didn't show it to anybody else.

Once we were at a restaurant with another couple from the hospital when she excused herself. She said she was going to the bathroom but she was making a call. When she returned to the table the others how it was going and Alice said, not so well. And then the conversation moved to something else – wine, the entree, something like that — and thing was like it was before except for the shimmering blade of her fish knife. Her hands were trembling. 'Not so well' meant somebody had died. A woman, or maybe a child.

The point wasn't to ignore it. The point was to step back into the world of chatting about the weather and close the pocket diary containing pages of close handwriting listing fifty, sixty items a week: medication, appointments, human beings. The point was to be thorough and even and not make a mistake.

Alice was equally meticulous about what we consumed. As we rolled on the floor laughing she would line up the remaining pills in order of chemical grouping. Once I moved a pill and, still laughing, her smile a little tighter, she took my hand and guided it back.

When she cupped a pill to my lips or withdrew the gleaming needle I would kiss her long, cool hands that touched sick and dying people every day. Because I knew what she went through I never asked why she liked to get fucked up. The real question was why she didn't do it more.

At nights we fell asleep watching small TV shows and in the mornings she would rail up and leave one for me on the bedside table while she had a shower. When she came out we'd fuck and kiss and she would dress for work and hold out her hand for the credit card while I ran the edge between my teeth.

We moved into a better building. We paid a decorator to fill it with new colours and furniture. We paid for restaurants, dry-cleaning, towaway zones, anything that broke. Things were rolling past. Nothing stuck. We renewed our passports: single, no children. We kept it together. We kept us together.

We spent a long summer weekend in Sydney. We loaded up for the flight and were met at the airport by an old friend of hers who said hello and carried our bags and flipped down the glove-box door in the car park so we could take a hit before we'd even pulled out. We spent four days not touching the food in expensive restaurants. We drank and wandered between clubs and hotel rooms and dumb tourist attractions, laughing. We sat in the National Gallery counting the colours in Aborigine paintings. That was our dreamtime. We were floating in millions of coloured dots.

Alice's friend gave us a farewell gift in the airport toilets. We drank Cointreau miniatures on the plane. We got home at nine a.m. I remember Alice wasn't on duty that morning. She climbed into the sheets and closed her eyes and started humming softly to herself, becoming lost in warm orange dreams. And then I got in the car and started driving down the motorway doing a hundred and forty-five.

Excerpt from Electric by Chad Taylor.

Reviews

"After losing his long-term girlfriend and as a consequence of doing too much booze and drugs, computer-whiz Sam Usher falls in with an oddly glamorous couple in downtown Auckland. The man, Jules, is something of a mystery himself, involved in abstruse mathematics but with diplomatic connections. His lover Candy is a rather more hard-boiled egghead, an expert on chaos theory and the dynamics of water. And it's not long before the three of them start to hang out together, doing drugs the way they do teabags in Coronation Street. Then when Jules is found battered almost to death and in a coma, and Candy does a disappearing act, our gallant cokehead hero sets out to find answers to a few questions that have been bothering him, and that's when the Big Trouble starts. Packed into the last 80 pages of this snappy yarn are enough near-death experiences to last most people a lifetime, if that's not a tautology. While the book may be a bit short on fleshing out its characters, the plot is beautifully paced. Apart from Sam, the sardonic Philip Marlowe of the Antipodes, Jules and Candy remain little more than problems to be solved in this puzzling but satisfying story. Yet satisfying it most definitely is: mystery piles upon mystery with intriguing consistency, though never so as to confuse the reader - merely to baffle him! Electric may be shocking at times (just like the real thing), but it is never less than gripping: it almost makes you want to go to Auckland, and there's no higher praise than that. – (Kirkus UK)

"Electric unveils the disturbing supremacy of digital technology and the equally disturbing infiltration of illicit drugs into everyday society, all within the darkened landscape of a broken metropolis. For Taylor, it's all about the dissolution of personal identity and the crushing anomie of post-modern society, each becoming more unhinged the longer the power remains off." – Wendy Cavenett, HQ, March 2003

"This is a rare and refreshing book. Taylor composes a tricky, teasing plot out of the blackness, revealing a gloomy city where sexy ice queens reveal spines tattooed with tiny equations. The Nick Cave of New Zealand literature." – Claire Harvey, The Australian, April 19 2003

"Set during a summer of endless power cuts, Electric is the weird and occasionally disturbing story of three drifting mathematicians and their tangled world of drug-taking and tormenting numerical theories… The plot seems to unfold in another world where reality is shifting and elusive. Taylor's impressively laconic prose style is enough to maintain the tension of the narrative right up to the end." – Clover Hughes, Observer

"A massive power cut temporarily removed Auckland from civilisation back in 1998. The ensuing confusion appears to have inspired Taylor's latest offering. His setting is a New Zealand you won't see in Lord of the Rings: a city suffering from the same urban malaise as glitzier metropolises on other continents. Our protagonist, Samuel Usher, is a drug addict who supports himself by recovering data from damaged computers. He falls in with a couple of drifters… who occupy themselves with recondite mathematics. But the favoured activity for all three involves powders on polished surfaces. When Jules dies in mysterious circumstances, Usher sets off to find out why… Thematically, Taylor's concerns are twofold: the infinite extent of digitised culture; and the limitless flood of narcotics (not to mention the global industry behind it). Electric looks at what happens when chaos rises up to warp these apparently unassailable worlds. If the characters at times appear to lack autonomy and individuation, that is to be expected from mileus in which the boundaries around personal identity are dissolving in a technological and chemical flux. Don't be put off if this makes the novel sound self-indulgent and academic – it isn't. First and foremost it is an accomplished noir thriller. Taylor has a fine feel for detail, a strong sense of how to build tension and his prose is clear and uncluttered, with mesmeric undertones. Noteworthy contemporary fiction." – Roger Howard, Time Out London (Book of the Week) Jan 22, 2003

"The hypnotic pull of Taylor's story lies in the zigzag dance of its forlorn characters, casting a murky, uneasy sense of doom… a book that offers subtle rewards for conoisseurs of entropy noir." – The Guardian

"Hums with energy… an inventive and intelligent thriller."– GQ

"Dark, intense, fast-paced and perceptive, both noir literary thriller and pulp crime fiction… Cool, surreal and sexy - make it the first book you read in 2003" – Pulp

"Blank, noirish, drugged-up… an intense juxtaposition of big ideas" – Scarlett Thomas, Scotland on Sunday