The debut novel by Sam Byers is a portrait of his generation. It is not looking goodby Cordelia Lynn / April 27, 2013 / Leave a comment
Idiopathy 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.