While reading Idiopathy, Sam Byer’s debut novel, I had to wonder how much glee the author felt while skewering his characters so cruelly. The title refers to Bovine Idiopathic Entrancement Syndrome, which is spreading through Britain’s cattle population, idiopathy being a condition that arises spontaneously or for which a cause is unknown. The novel rotates between several points of view and the reader gets a portrait of their collective ennui.
Katherine is stuck at a job as a facilities manager, having “accidentally” moved to Norwich from London. She smokes a lot, drinks a lot, and has been having violent sex with a recovering addict co-worker, Keith. She’s being eaten alive by her own bitterness. Angry at herself and the entire world, she implodes once she discovers she’s pregnant after a horrible vacation to Malta with Keith.
Her ex-boyfriend Daniel is a PR flack for a biotech firm. His new girlfriend Angelica is a cloying ex-hippie with a giant barfing cat and a crowd of friends who protest outside the very research facility where he works. Byer mocks the protesters as sharply as he mocks the objects of their protests: “For people … who railed daily against the tyranny of the squares, they were oddly humourless, as if free expression and boundless emotional exploration were such a serious business that it left no room for actual fun.”
Katherine and Daniel are reunited when their old friend Nathan is released from a psychiatric facility and moves back in with his mother, who has just written a self-help book for parents who have survived troubled children. It’s called Mother Courage: One Woman’s Battle Against Maternal Blame, and she wants Nathan to help her promote the book about how he ruined her life by opening a Facebook account and getting his friends to like it.
The novel portrays all of these characters up to the penultimate reunion of Katherine, Daniel, and Nathan. I was reminded of the Mike Leigh movie Secrets and Lies, or that awful feeling when you’re sitting next to a table in a restaurant and can overhear the couple fighting and it’s just so awkward. There’s no real plot, just the inner lives of the main characters, in all of their awfulness. Byers lays bare the worst of their qualities expertly and it sort of just ends with no real resolution, but I didn’t mind. In this author’s hands, the combination of terribleness and hilarity worked well, but there’s only so much a reader can take. Don’t get me wrong, Byers has written an excellent book that I enjoyed reading, but I had to watch some kitten videos to restore balance.