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“’Fuck me like you’re a child,’ said Keith, back from holiday and fucking her in a way that reminded her of an animal in a veterinary collar – as if she were something to be shaken off, a constraint of which he needed to reverse. “Fuck me like you’re scared of me.’”
Where to start? Bovine Idiopathic Entrancement, psychiatric wards, Twitter celebrities, unfulfilling sex, fulfilling loneliness, hesitant love, sharply honed humour, breath-taking assuredness, Idiopathy has it all. It is, of course, a satire but also deeply humane and, in Katherine, Sam Byers has created one of the most memorable characters in British fiction for some time.
The plot is simple and elegant: three old friends, Katherine, Daniel and Nathan, decide to stage a reunion a year or so after they last saw each other. The precise nature of why their friendship ended adds an interesting level of intrigue, as does the way Byers expertly teases out the grotesque and the hysterical in his premise. The three main characters often lose themselves in their own heads, and the deeper they tumble down their own private rabbit-holes, the stronger the novel becomes. Quite simply, solipsism has never been so damn funny.
“If it is possible to miss someone,” Daniel muses near the beginning of the novel, “while simultaneously hoping you never have to see them again, then this is how Daniel felt about Katherine.”
Set in and around Norwich, the modern English world is rendered hilariously disconnected – people exist, like separate atoms within a circuit, to bounce off of each other and collide but never come together. And where better to set a novel about conflictions and cattle than Norfolk? In a world where relationships and being perceived to be in a relationship is tantamount, Byers presents us with three brilliant characters who, despite themselves, just can’t do it. Katherine has resound herself to arbitrary sex, Daniel has trapped himself into a coupling he’s not sure he’s all for, and Nathan, well. Nathan is the true heart of the novel, and his story is best left experienced. Whilst Idiopathy is, firstly, a hilarious book, Byers still manages to generate a fair amount of pathos.
“Without fear, she thought, without drama, there was only the grey blankness of late-middle-age relationships, where, as far as she could make out, concepts like love and passion were replaced by what she saw as the wretched terminology of co-dependent ennui.”
The proliferation of connectivity tools that web our characters together – Twitter, mobile phones, language etc – only serves to reconfirm their isolation. Byers undermines anything and everything that humans use to connect, rendering them as useful to us as a set of stairs for a cow trapped on the second floor. “I’M TELLING YOU HOW I FEEL,” Daniel says to Katherine. “AND YOU HAVE TO LISTEN.”
And it’s not just the humans. The amusing sub-plot of Bovine Idiopathic Entrancement, a disease spreading through cows which literally makes them anti-social, fleshes out the world nicely. Whilst this strand, in lesser hands, could have come off as too obvious, Byers cleverly places it behind the action, and we only catch passing glimpses of the growing pandemic:
“Any indication that a cow might be staring excessively, ceasing to move, desisting from common bovine behaviours such as cud-chewing and tail-flicking, or indeed simply standing alone for any period of time needs to be reported immediately.”
Love and loneliness, like a disease, are things that can transcend isolated bodies and connect two separate parties beyond the void. As much as Katherine, Daniel and Nathan feel alone, they are united by it. As much as they want to escape each other, they are drawn back together. This is mimicked in the prose, which is at turns terse and sharp and sprawling and circular, reminiscent of David Foster Wallace at his most entrancing.
Idiopathy is a very British novel, written by an insider-outsider with a keen eye and daggered tongue, and, if your reading experience doesn’t end with a distinct sense of having lost some quite wonderful company, then, please, check your pulse.
“No, no, [Katherine] thought. Better the sense of odds, of struggle; the ongoing and repeated relief of trauma endured and survived. Without it, there was only the security of the unimaginative: an unspokenly dwindling sex life; roiling resentment; his-and-hers facial hair.”
Sam Byers’s Idiopathy was published in April 2013.
David Whelan is a fiction writer and journalist based in London, England. He was formally Litro's Reviews Editor and Fleeting Magazine's Interviews Editor. Currently, he writes for Vice's food vertical, Munchies. He is one of Untitled Books's "New Voices" and his fiction has also appeared in 3:AM Magazine, Shortfire Press and Gutter Magazine, among others. He holds an MA in Creative Writing from UEA.