Out of Our Minds

Sam Byers, Idiopathy

Fourth Estate, 300pp, £14.99, ISBN 9780007412082

reviewed by David Anderson

Idiopathy, the debut novel from Sam Byers, is billed as a novel of ‘love, narcissism and ailing cattle', a golden triangle of depth, surface and wit. I wonder if it is really of any of these things, or if it is really a novel about an integral lack, about characters locked into the frameworks of their lives, desperately searching themselves for a subject.

The book is worked up from the short story 'Some Other Katherine', originally published by Granta in their Spring issue of 2012. It centres on a three-way relationship between PR man Daniel, ex-dope fiend Nathan and the aforementioned Katherine, Daniel's former lover and light of Nathan's life.

In Katherine's character we find crystallised an anger that cannot coherently articulate itself, one that soaks the world in cynicism. She is not a likeable woman. But this is not the problem, rather, the problem is the extent to which she fends off meaningful experience, a tendency that becomes the tenor of the book itself. She has moved from London to Norwich 'by mistake', and her apathy towards her surroundings is mirrored by the lack of a sense of place in the novel—East Anglia becomes an empty space, unexplained and useless.

Perhaps the point of space in the novel is to evoke absence, but in lieu of any kind of subtopian critique all we have is place rendered in terms of its own negativity. I suppose this paves the way for what the novel is really about—selfishness, sex and relationships. The book has a lot to say about these, much of it frequently unpleasant. Keith, Katherine’s office fling, is the one to wish (our heroine imagines) that she were 'some other Katherine', whilst they fornicate passionlessly during a Maltese package-holiday, trying to kindle some eroticism by pretending to be strangers. Keith's sex-addiction becomes the cause célèbre of the office, as he 'twangs' his therapeutic rubber band to the doe-eyed chorus of the female staff members.

It is suggested that Katherine wishes to be somebody else too: to leave her bitterness behind for a moment and let the world in. Briefly, she hypothesises having an affair with a photojournalist, a Madison County fantasy where some swashbuckling Robert Kincaid provides her with a child ('Leica if it was a girl, Pentax for a boy') before rushing upon his own destruction in some war-torn corner of the world. But sex remains an escape route from nothing to nothing, and Katherine can't bring herself to desire happiness. Instead, she perversely strives to reproduce in her private life the alienation handed to her on a plate at work, where she is universally resented as a salaried milk-monitor.

Her job is disconnected from its notional industry: having 'nothing to do with telecommunications, [it] centred instead on the finer points of workplace management.' Her lover Daniel is equally alienated by his career, and reminisces about his father's former board-room splendour, working a similar 'McGuffin job' where the 'supposed thrust of the industry' had nothing to do with his actual tasks. In old-age, his father has become an anti-model, drifting into senile forgetfulness and the endless re-filing of his magazine cabinet. Yet Daniel replicates his father’s life: he works at 'The Centre', a biological research facility developing sustainable crops, but in his PR capacity is equally removed. 'He never touched anything. Much like the rest of Daniel's life, you could have dusted for prints and found barely a whorled smudge.'

For better or worse, this lack of tactility stretches through the novel: the characters’ lives become abstract arrangements of events, defined only by a craving for a sense of immediacy and progression that doesn't come. There is no real crescendo, no crisis. Or, conversely, the whole novel is a narrative crisis. When immediacy might arrive it is, like happiness, pushed away, with the same feeling of insulation that registered in Byers's treatment of space and distance. It's a technique that lets us share in the cynicism towards Daniel's new partner Angelica, who has travelled — 'She'd spent time in a number of places and yet appeared, when it came down to it, to have been nowhere' — but one that can also leave us exhausted by the bull-headed stubbornness offered as an alternative.

The book is caught in a bind between mocking the uneventfulness of the phenomena it narrates, and resigning itself to uneventfulness as a natural condition contemporary life. The problem with the cows? Having modulated from 'Herd Disenfranchisement Syndrome' and 'Herd Disengagement' — it's a fairly obvious metaphor — the world is confronted by 'Bovine Idiopathic Entrancement', whose symptoms are prolonged staring-into-space as a manifestation of profound indifference. The use of this theme as a send-up of apocalyptic prognoses is humorous, but fruitless; the sensation of indifference escapes the page. Surely Georges Perec's Les Choses (1965) already dealt with these themes so much better, with Jerome and Sylvie, whose life 'was an art of living', sustained by the arms-length crisis of the Algerian war. Perec's book was firmly set in time as a 'story of the sixties’; Byers locates his novel merely 'comparatively recently', yet, beyond the inclusion of Iphones and tweets, there isn't much that is terribly current. If the apathy of modern life is what Idiopathy is trying to present, it fails to engage critically enough with its theme.

Clearly, it is a challenge to write a book about banality and prevent it from becoming banal (n.b. David Foster Wallace’s unfinished, and perhaps unfinishable, attempt to do so in The Pale King), and there is a genuine warmth shining through the gaps of Idiopathy, coupled with moments of real humour. Byers has an eye for detail and a fine touch for its transcription. Early on, the alignment of narratives via answerphone and text-messages is tidy and smart, but there is a hole at the centre that these embellishments struggle to surpass. Slipping too often from the perfomatively mundane into the mundanely performative, Idiopathy plays out the psychologies of its characters so completely that there is a sensation of depthlessness — they don't engage with the world, and so it is difficult to engage with them.
David Anderson is a senior editor at Review 31.