The debut novel by Sam Byers is a portrait of his generation. It is not looking goodby / April 27, 2013 / Leave a comment
By Sam Byers (4th Estate, £16.99)
“When had normality become so bloody weird?” asks Daniel in Idiopathy, Sam Byers’s state-of-his-generation debut novel. The question could have been posed by any of the book’s three protagonists. Having each refined their own unhealthy reactions to modern life, they stumble, and sometimes crawl, through a blackly comic miasma of bloody weird normality.
Katherine worries that “she might already be dead.” When she attempts a more determined step towards death, she wakes up in a predictable pool of her own vomit. Acerbic and self-destructive, she doesn’t have sex, she “fucks”; and she’s casually suffering from an unnamed eating disorder. Stagnating in a town she hates (Norwich) and an unfulfilling job she habitually resigns from (HR), she spends her time imposing fire drills on her colleagues out of spite and resenting her ex, Daniel, for his post-breakup success.
Daniel, however, is cripplingly neurotic, although to everyone including Katherine’s mother, he appears a contemporary triumph. He has a trendy job as the PR man at a biochemical crop research centre (for which he occasionally appears beaming and besuited in the press) and a sickly sweet girlfriend who fills their apartment with joss sticks and “multi-ethnic fruits.” In secret, he is self-obsessed and self-loathing. His neuroses have led to a hypochondria so egotistical it is eponymous: “Dan-flu.”
Finally there is their one-time friend, Nathan. Last seen standing beatific and drug-addled in a glade, his sudden disappearance has been a source of guilt to both Katherine and Daniel. Idiopathy opens with his equally sudden reappearance, less drug-addled but slightly more beatific. This prodigal return is the driving force of Idiopathy’s plot, forcing the three anti-heroes towards one of the most ill-advised reunions in recent fiction.
In the background to all this is Idiopathy. Defined as “A disease or condition which arises spontaneously or for which the cause is unknown,” the concept seems oddly pertinent to modern life. The idiopathics of the title are the nation’s cattle, who have fallen victim to the Bovine Idiopathic Entrancement, a disease which mostly makes them behave more like cows. Fears of a cross-species epidemic filter through to the public, resulting in a frantic cull.
Byers, in his early thirties, is well positioned to comment on this generation’s reactions to the disease, themselves, each other, parents, and just about everything else. He has a sharp and delightfully unforgiving eye for the follies and hypocrisies of 21st century British life, lampooning everything from narcissistic eco-worriers and facile Twitter sensations to Brits on holiday (a particularly humiliating passage for anyone who might identify as one). His tone borders on smug at times, but we forgive him that when he lacerates recognisable “types” who we have met and disliked (including ourselves).
Despite the humour—and it is (to use a cliché that Byers would pick up on, italicise and mock) “laugh-out-loud funny”—Idiopathy is, at its core, a sad, almost poignant, book. More telling than the definition for “Idiopathy” is its etymology: from the Greek, idios: “‘own, private”, and patheia: “suffering.” Short of culling, Byers doesn’t provide an antidote for the sufferings of the human cattle who inhabit his world, narcissistic though their woes may be. “Almost poignant,” because it feels as though Idiopathy doesn’t quite match its own aspirations on this front. Slick and sophisticated, as is the norm for graduates of creative writing degrees, it is the humour and well-balanced prose that stay with you. Moments of pathos, except at times between children and their parents, rarely come off.
This is, however, an excellent first novel, not least for the creation of Katherine, a character so dislikable that you have to admire her. Unlike the self-righteous and self-improving cast that surround her, she embraces her depression with all the conviction of a boa constrictor on steroids. If there is an antidote to Idiopathy, it is Katherine who provides it: “She might not have been able to break her patterns…but at least she knew what they were.” Her strange brand of honesty could be the saving of her generation of “perpetual adolescents”. But then again, they’re unlikely to care.