Idiopathy – Sam Byers

It was author Nikesh Shukla who I heard raving about Sam Byers ‘Idiopathy’ so much that when I saw it in the lovely new sparkly Liverpool Central Library I simply had to pick it up. I admit it had been on my radar with its Waterstones 11 inclusion but it was Nikesh who sealed the deal. He didn’t really talk about the plot, just said that the writing was pretty much genius stuff. So when I read the cover description, as I don’t read blurbs on the whole, as ‘A novel about love, narcissism and ailing cattle’ it sounded both intriguing and rather quirky.

4th Estate, hardback, 2013, 300 pages, borrowed from the library

‘Idiopathy’ is, as defined at the start of the book, “a disease or condition which arises spontaneously or for which the cause is unknown”. Bearing this in mind, initially a reader may assume this applies simply to the strand of the book where cows are randomly becoming very ill and being culled, some thinking this means the end is nigh others just that the price of beef is about to soar. However I wondered (if I am trying to be deep and clever) whether in fact it is a condition that each of the three main characters, Katherine, Daniel and Nathan, have. Each has a feeling of unhappiness, loneliness or just in some way, possibly rather self indulgently, being a bit out of the loop with the world.

Katherine and Daniel used to be a couple not so long ago. A couple in one of the most possibly toxic relationships ever; she liked to annihilate him, twisting every sentence he gave her and playing mind games galore, while his insecurities made him snappy, unhappy and always in the wrong with every barbed sentence she threw him. They only really had one friend in common at the time, Nathan, a man who they decided to befriend as they thought he might know where to get some drugs and a crazy night out – they weren’t wrong. Yet Nathan disappeared one night, a night they both seemingly forgot along with Nathan himself, yet Nathan hasn’t and so when he comes back from a psychiatric ward a reunion looks imminent, if slightly doomed.

What Byers does with is characters, which I found both clever and fascinating as a reader, is make his three main protagonists all hideously dislikeable yet also incredibly readable. Prime example, and probably my favourite, was Katherine. I don’t think I have met anyone so barbed, cynical and downright miserable in fiction for some time, yet I have met so many Katherine’s in my life. If I am really honest I may even have (in some very dark times) had a bit of a Katherine phase in my time, without the half-arsed suicide attempt though thankfully. She sleeps around with the men she doesn’t paralyse with fear in the office because she has no self worth, then feels worthless but quite likes it and so spends nights eating in her dressing gown in front of the telly. She hates her job, in fact really her life, in Norwich, a place she doesn’t even want to be in yet fled to. She is the perfect anti-heroine.

“She met with Keith only on selected evenings. They fucked and drank and rarely spoke, which suited Katherine. He bought her a vibrator as a present; gift wrapped. With a heart-shaped tag that read ‘Think of me’. She donated it, tag and all, to her local charity shop on her way to work, buried at the bottom of a carrier bag filled with musty paperbacks and a selection of Daniel’s shirts she’d found amidst her archived clothes. She never saw it for sale, and wondered often what had become of it. She liked to think one of the elderly volunteers had taken it home and subjected herself to an experience so revelatory as to border on the mystical.”

Because she was such a big and brash and brilliantly vile character, she sort of stole the show. I liked Nathan, and actually wanted more of his back story and why he self harmed so much, and enjoyed watching him move back in with his parents, his mother now being a twitter and blog superstar turned author ‘Mother Courage’ a fame reached at the expense of her own son and his issues. Daniel I struggled with. I just found him a bit pathetic, a man who stuck with an utter bitch, Katherine, for five years and has now ended up with Angelica who is really a bit of nothingness he quite fancied when things were bad and whose friends and cat he hates. As someone who hates ineffectual people I found my teeth grating when ever Daniel’s narration took over even when it was very funny, though I think that is what Byers wanted.

‘Love you darling. Could you pass the milk?’
‘Course I can baby. Here you go. Love you.’
‘Love you too.’
They had, Daniel thought, crossed all acceptable boundaries of decency.

The book is hilarious by the way. You wouldn’t think it could be with such a bunch of miserable self serving so and so’s at the helm (even though you will love Katherine, honestly she is genius) yet I found myself laughing out loud a lot along the way. Interestingly as I read on I found I needed breaks from it, the humour made me want to gulp the book down yet the characters and their conversations become cloying after a time. A gamble by Byers as it is very realistic yet because they are so vile it can get quite heady, particularly the rows between Katherine and Daniel, or rather her turning every utterance back at him in which I soon found I had to stop reading as I was getting so cross at Katherine for being such a bitch and Daniel for being such a bloody doormat. Shows how real they were though. This could alienate some though because it almost gets too much on occasions.

Without sounding like a bit of a swanky twat (hopefully) I would describe this book as being ‘a very modern novel’ which simply typing makes me want to vomit in my own mouth somewhat. Yet it is true. There does seem to be something of a ‘turning thirty crisis’ nowadays; at thirty you should be like previous generations, have a house, marriage, kids and a pension yet it just isn’t like that and I don’t think that is something that is written about often. These people are also the ‘me’ generation who think everyone gives a toss what they think on twitter, their blogs, etc. (Oh dear, that me isn’t it? See I made it all about me, I must be one of them too – help!) Byers also has a pop at environmentalists, corporations… in fact everyone gets a swipe, and then the bovine issue after ‘swine flu’ and the recent horse meat scandal is another gem – though it was a tangent that trailed I thought until the almost too farcical ending.

I think the best way to describe ‘Idiopathy’ is that it is a timely novel, it is also occasionally a rather testing novel yet a novel that overall, for me, announces an author that I am really looking forward to watching in the future and seeing what he comes up with next. If it is a book about cantankerous pensioners living in a seaside town where people go to basically die then I think it could win every prize going, if not maybe I should right that book myself. Oh there I go again, making it all about me. Oops. Back to Sam and ‘Idiopathy’ then, I would strongly recommend giving them both a whirl; it could cause some corking debates at a book club.

2 Comments

Filed under Fourth Estate Books, Review, Sam Byers

2 responses to “Idiopathy – Sam Byers

  1. Sharkell

    Great review. I feel a bit mixed about whether or not to put it on my wishlist. I’m not great with books where I don’t like the characters, although I have to say, I did like The Slap and there weren’t any nice characters in that book.

  2. I’ve been thinking of reading this for a while, so enjoyed this review. I don’t think I’d mind the unpleasant characters – as long as they’re real, I don’t care whether I like them or not. Don’t tend to enjoy farcical endings, though, so that made me have second thoughts, but I think I’ll try it anyway. It’s a brilliant title and sounds like something a bit different.

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