Sam Spade plays the numbers game

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ELECTRIC

Chad Taylor

Jonathan Cape, 10

Following the breakdown of his drugged-up-and-going-nowhere relationship with Alice, and a car crash which has left him scarred and alienated, Sam is a drifting particle in a city slowly decaying, as grid-failure after grid-failure leads to the loss of information, light, power and, of course, data.

Sam’s firm is doing great business. Everything else is falling apart. When Sam is given a hard drive to fix, on which he finds equations relating to wave theory, he is drawn to the guy who brought it in, Jules, and the originator of the work on waves, his girlfriend Candy. They share with Sam a love of numbers, a passion for drugs and a nihilistic sense that, while the world is ‘just numbers’, no one can make them add up.

Sam, Candy and Jules get together to do drugs, go to parties and go swimming in the middle of the night. In a situation that develops into a kind of love triangle - in which perhaps even love can be defined as something whose angles, in plane geometry, add up to 180 degrees - Sam is simply an atom in a world propelled by chaos.

Driven by his desire for Candy and a deeper need to escape from any kind of reality, Sam’s atomicity is in an escalating state of decay. When Jules dies in suspicious circumstances, Sam is left to complete the chaotic reaction and balance the forces that led to his attack. He has a letter from Jules containing the words "Anyway freedom goodbye" and a bunch of numbers. Now he has to try to work out what it might mean.

Electric is initially compelling because of its closely controlled, blank, noirish narration. Imagine a really wired Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe contemplating a nihilistic, chaotic universe, in which his own part is brief and unpleasant, and you have the feeling of this book. This drugged-up mystery story is also an intense juxtaposition of big ideas with a sense that none of the big ideas actually matter - we are just chemicals and the world is just numbers.

Perhaps there really isn’t any more to it than that. In some ways Taylor doesn’t completely deliver on the promises of the first half of the book but no one can say the denouement doesn’t fit with the unnerving realism of this novel. This is an exciting read, and Chad Taylor is a writer with very much more to say.

Scarlett Thomas’s latest novel is Going Out