The 76th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the June 1995 issue. Mark Broatch, currently the Listener’s books and arts editor, reviews Chad Taylor’s first short-story collection The Man Who Wasn’t Feeling Himself (David Ling, $19.95).
Chad Taylor isn’t afraid to take risks, opening his career with books featuring transvestism, physical abuse and pathological lying. He is also extraordinarily prolific, particularly for a New Zealand writer. Three books published in two years, a produced screenplay, two others on the go, and he’s several thousand words into his third novel.
This new book of short stories is front-bumpered by two pregnant quotes and a tribute to an unplaced woman, “likewise insane”. They have clever, inviting titles. In “From Soup To Nuts” (the title is an American expression denoting all-inclusive, from the first course to the last, though here it means something different), an obnoxious, overbearing skin doctor takes his young date to a swank restaurant. Desperately needing to impress, he corrects her dining faux pas and the waiter’s. The reader is allowed to explore the thoughts of the young waiter, and the unlikeable Dr Hasby, popping in or stepping away as necessary to gather detail — detail which tells us, for example, that the young woman is not as naive as Hasby supposes, and that medical training has strengthened his ability to distance himself from his actions, to horrific result, when the girl departs in disgust.
Taylor is not afraid to push his readers, be it with sickening violence or explicit sex. Or to vary approaches: changing person, style, speed, genre. This collection demonstrates his range, yet the stories share a voice, a smooth finesse that’s not always reassuring, because it’s hard to find a moral tone. There is, in a few stories, an unsettling violence towards women, though this is counterpoised by an overwhelming love in others.
Back to the sex. A lovingly sado-masochistic couple swap dis-pleasure in “Archie and Veronica”, characters from an American comicbook (as well as software tools for trawling the Internet, though I won’t accuse him of that obsession, even though the title story displays a useful knowledge of computers). They live out a fanciful life, inflicting one insult upon their bodies after another, from childhood, told in a style reminiscent of his novel Pack Of Lies.
“Oilskin” throws up the subject of absolute obsession. Nigel feels ambivalent towards flatmate Warren for the latter’s predilection for whipping young women — can it be justified by one victim’s claim that unless you want something above all else, you can’t be sure you’re alive? “Running Hot And Cold” tells an unusual and probably offensive tale of brutally honest sex, including a golden shower, in which the participants find satiety by separate routes.
Arguably the best of the collection is “No Sun No Rain”. This murder mystery engages within a paragraph — a Taylor strong suit — displaying well-controlled humour as it spins out the travels of a keen sleuth tracking the connection between a missing Austrian landscape artist and a trail of waterlogged corpses found in Auckland harbour. Taylor displays a keen knowledge of art history with which he pricks the pretensions of the visual art world.
There’s hardly a weak card in the pack, despite occasional small errors — like the aircraft that accelerates as it comes in to land in the title story. These are accomplished, fluent, believable stories. The worst that could be said of them would be that they are lightweight. But that wouldn’t really be fair. They suggest unspoken depths (psychological, cultural) but simply don’t ever get caught in them. They skip over their world’s waves like sharp bright shells, just occasionally reflecting light down — which reveals, if I read it right, that not only is much of evil banal, but so is much of its kissing cousin, pleasure. By pitching them this way, Taylor suggests that it’s not the surface of life which is interesting, but the undercurrents that drive our basic emotions that are worth thinking about.
UPDATE: The book is now available in a digital edition. More here.