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Idiopathy: A Novel

Idiopathy: A Novel

by Sam Byers

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A debut novel of love, narcissism, and ailing cattle

Idiopathy (?d?'?p??i): a disease or condition which arises spontaneously or for which the cause is unknown.

Idiopathy: a novel as unexpected as its title, in which Katherine, Daniel, and Nathan—three characters you won't forget in a hurry—unsuccessfully try to figure out how


A debut novel of love, narcissism, and ailing cattle

Idiopathy (?d?'?p??i): a disease or condition which arises spontaneously or for which the cause is unknown.

Idiopathy: a novel as unexpected as its title, in which Katherine, Daniel, and Nathan—three characters you won't forget in a hurry—unsuccessfully try to figure out how they feel about one another and how they might best live their lives in a world gone mad. Featuring a mysterious cattle epidemic, a humiliating stint in rehab, an unwanted pregnancy, a mom–turned–media personality ("Mother Courage"), and a workplace with a bio-dome housing a perfectly engineered cornfield, it is at once a scathing satire and a moving meditation on love and loneliness. With unusual verbal finesse and great humor, Sam Byers neatly skewers the tangled relationships and unhinged narcissism of a self-obsessed generation in a remarkable, uproarious first novel.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Byers’s debut novel starts promisingly but bogs down thanks to a particularly unpleasant main character, Katherine. She, Daniel, and Nathan are three friends in London whose lives are going through a rough patch. Once a couple, Katherine and Daniel have broken up, and Nathan has emerged from a long stint in rehab. As Daniel settles into a cushy new job and a relationship with the sanctimonious Angelina, Katherine distracts herself with a series of meaningless affairs, while Nathan moves back in with his parents, to learn that his mother has become a self-help guru. Initially, Katherine is bright, sassy, and fun, but after she gets pregnant, she seems to snap, reflexively saying cruel things and behaving obnoxiously to everyone she meets. The minimal storyline, in which Nathan persuades his old friends to get together for one last evening’s carouse, hardly helps the book, while a subplot about a mysterious illness striking England’s cattle adds little. Byers can write scenes with humor and sketches some memorable supporting characters—Nathan’s parents cry out for more space—but the work never recovers from the decision to afflict the heroine with what reads like a severe personality disorder. Agent: Peter Straus, Rogers, Coleridge & White (U.K.). (June)
From the Publisher

“Even as [Idiopathy] threatens to become an emotional abattoir, Byers's prose remains spreadsheet-specific, mock analytical, funny . . . [Byers] has taken a laudable risk in turning his Bovarys bovine and Kareninas sheepish.” —Joshua Cohen, The New York Times Book Review

“A darkly funny love triangle set in a slightly dystopian version of modern-day England . . . Byers' blow-by-blow accounts of Katherine and Daniel's vicious arguments reveal amazing psychological insight. Byers also has a knack for visceral imagery, and his clever send-ups of the self-indulgent inanities of middle-class liberals make Idiopathy an entertaining read.” —Slate editor Laura Anderson on New York 1

“The Time cover story about millennial narcissism is just the latest in a long and overwritten narrative about this generation's solipsism. But these lengthy articles can never get past the idea that Facebook and cell phone selfies are the problem. With Idiopathy, Byers is satirizing something deeper: the idea that we are all possessed by our desire to be happy, that maybe it is that desire and self-doubt that keeps us so unhappy.” —Kevin Nguyen, Grantland

“Blistering satire . . . Byers lampoons, with excoriating wit, the hash we have made of modern life, and the hash it has made of us.” —Electric Literature

“A brightly dyspeptic comedy that traces the stillborn careers, love affairs and life ambitions of three close friends in their thirties, as they grow irreparably apart in the wake of a series of slow-burning catastrophes . . . Byers has a quicksilver prose style and an easy, unlabored way of getting his point across . . . A sad, poignant and funny debut, deeply relatable and replete with promise for the author's future.” —Time Out New York (4 out of 5 stars)

“Who knows what caused this hilarious, observant, and provocative novel, but I'm glad it happened. Sam Byers exhibits serious talent in his debut.” —Sam Lipsyte, author of The Fun Parts

“Elegant and sharply drawn, full of emotional and linguistic precision. Idiopathy is written with remarkable assurance and skill, and I kept having to remind myself that this is a first book. Sam Byers is very talented, and I am already looking forward to whatever he writes next.” —Charles Yu, author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

“Is it possible to shiver with pleasure and horror at the same time? Reader, I tell you it is. The world of Idiopathy may be the one we all inhabit, but it's no less phantasmagorical for that. A wickedly fun piece of work.” —John Wray, author of Lowboy

Idiopathy made me feel even worse about my generation, all while laughing hysterically, busting my gut, going to the hospital. It also features a delightful protagonist and the unexplainable British town of Norwich.” —Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story

“Savagely brilliant . . . Brimming with comic brio and nuanced psychological insight, Idiopathy signals the arrival of an exciting new talent. Byers is brilliant at capturing the inadequacies of a generation so conceited that that even their attempted altruism is self-serving and insubstantial.” —David Annand, The Sunday Telegraph

“Scabrously funny, beadily vigilant and often piercingly perceptive, [Byers] not only mercilessly trains a magnifying glass on broken relationships, but also skillfully refracts his snappy prose in such a way as to burn a hole in his characters' self delusions.” —Trevor Lewis, The Sunday Times

“Laced with satirical verve . . . this is a savagely funny debut from a gifted, cynical new voice.” —Joseph Charlton, The Financial Times

“Woefully funny . . . Byers writes with caustic humour and takes no small joy in his characters' sufferings, similar in ways to Jonathan Franzen at his finest . . . Signals the rise of a young star in the world of fiction.” —Diego Baez, Booklist

“A howling dig at cultural myopia and a more serious examination of its source . . . For all his lacerating one-liners, Byers's real skill is the pathos achieved through bleakness.” —Catherine Taylor, The Guardian

“This is fiction that will make you purr with delight. It's well observed, light on its feet and never less than entertaining, with elegant ruminations on sex, love and loneliness that are offset by some sublime comic riffs on the state of the nation . . . In Katherine, the author has created a spiky, sparky heroine for out times.” —Sebastian Shakespeare, Tatler

Idiopathy is almost indecently entertaining. Byers writes with scalding verve about office life, sexual mores, Brits on holiday, self-help sappiness, middle-class activism, the inanity of television news, relationships with impossible parents, and much else besides.” —Sam Leith, The Times Literary Supplement

“One of the most ill-advised reunions in recent fiction. [Byers] has a sharp and delightfully unforgiving eye for the follies and hypocrisies of 21st-century British life . . . Despite the humour--and it is (to use a cliché that Byers would pick up on, italicise and mock) "laugh-out-loud funny" --Idiopathy is, at its core, a sad, almost poignant book . . . An excellent first novel.” —Cordelia Lynn, Prospect

Idiopathy is about what bloody idiots people are. While delivering one laugh-out-loud zinger after another (many of them too raunchy to be quoted here), Byers lampoons, with excoriating wit, the hash we have made of modern life, and the hash it has made of us.” —Jenna Leigh Evans, Electric Literature

“A cartoonishly misanthropic satire on modern mores and first-world issues . . . He has a keenly absurdist eye for the more excruciating aspects of human relationships.” —Metro

“I grew up reading Iris Murdoch so discussions about love and people's good and bad behaviour are meat and drink to me, but . . . I really would not have finished this if I hadn't been reviewing it.” —David Benedict on BBC Radio 4's Saturday Review

Library Journal
Across England, Bovine Idiopathic Entrancement has reached epidemic proportions as cows sink into a state of total apathy, spending their days, until culled, simply staring straight ahead, disengaged from the world. The characters in this sad and funny debut suffer from their own brand of idiopathy, trapped in private hells of self-obsession. Katherine, an emotional train wreck, desperately craves love while simultaneously driving away anyone who would come too close. Her ex-lover, Daniel, lives a life of outward stability while remaining in a state of perpetual disengagement from his emotions and his true self. Nathan has just returned from a residential treatment center after an episode of self-mutilation. Meeting at Daniel's suburban home after a year apart, these three characters struggle to come to terms with both their psychological disarray and their tangled relationships. VERDICT In this witty and engaging first novel, Byers uses his acerbic style to skewer contemporary vanities while recognizing the loneliness and genuine need for connection that underlies narcissism.—Lawrence Rungren, Merrimack Valley Lib. Consortium, Andover, MA
Kirkus Reviews
A darkly comic novel turns bleaker and sadder as a generation of perennially adolescent Britons struggles to find love, or meaning, or maturity or something. The front page of the debut novel by Byers defines "idiopathy" as "a disease or condition which arises spontaneously or for which the cause is unknown." It refers most specifically to a crisis which pervades England, initially referred to vaguely and obliquely as "all this terrible cow business" and "whatever was going on with the cattle." Worse than mad cow disease and capable of crossing species, infecting sheep and even humans, it hovers in the background of the novel, which focuses on the relationship (or lack thereof) among Katherine, Daniel and Nathan, who are stuck in some gaping maw between mindless adolescence (which seems to extend well into the mid-20s) and adult responsibility. On the surface, Katherine is the most interesting and least likable: "The better she was at her job, the more people hated her. By general consensus, Katherine was very good at her job." She has sex, indiscriminately and without any satisfaction, with some co-workers who hate her less (or at least differently) than the others, and perhaps she does so to fill the void left by her breakup with Daniel, though when the two were lovers they never seemed to like each other much. Observes their friend Nathan, "[o]n a good day, they drew on pooled energy. On a bad day, they battled for dwindling air." Nathan has recently been released from psychiatric treatment following his attempts to really hurt himself (though not, he insists, to kill himself) after professing his love for and to Katherine. He may well be the sanest of the three. They inevitably reunite, after the reader has spent long stretches inside the consciousness of each, as the gathering unexpectedly encompasses Daniel's blandly beautiful girlfriend and the man with whom she might be having an affair, in a climax that suggests a younger version of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Throughout, words are platitudes, words are weapons, words are what distinguish this generation from the diseased cattle across the novel's backdrop. Perhaps. Here's hoping the promising novelist finds a depth of meaning that eludes his characters.

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)

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Read an Excerpt


By Sam Byers

Faber and Faber, Inc.

Copyright © 2013 Sam Byers
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-86547-764-3


Comparatively recently, during a family function about which Katherine's mother had used the term three-line whip, but which Katherine's sister had nevertheless somehow avoided, Katherine's mother had shown a table of attendant relatives the photographs she kept in her purse. The relatives were largely of the aged kind, and their reliable delight in photos was a phenomenon Katherine had long been at a loss to understand. As far as she was concerned, ninety per cent of photographs (and relatives) looked the same. One grinning child was much like the next; one wedding was indistinguishable from another; and given that the majority of her family tended to holiday in depressingly predictable places, the resultant snaps of their trips abroad were fairly uniform too. So while the other relatives – Aunt Joan and Uncle Dick and their oddly wraith-like daughter, Isabel, plus two or three generic wrinklies who Katherine dimly remembered but with whom she had little interest in getting re-acquainted – cooed and hummed at the photos the way one might at a particularly appetising and well-arranged dessert, Katherine remained quiet and shuttled her eyes, as she so often did on these occasions, between the face of her mother and that of her watch, neither of which offered any reassurance that the event would soon be over.

Katherine's mother's purse, unlike the hands that held it, was smooth and new; recently purchased, Katherine happened to know, at Liberty, where Katherine's mother regularly stepped outside her means.

'What a lovely purse,' said some removed cousin or other, clearly aware that any accessory Katherine's mother produced in public had to elicit at least one compliment or else find itself summarily relegated to one of the sacks of abandoned acquisitions that she deposited with alarming regularity at the local charity shop. It struck Katherine that if the relatives had only shown a similar sense of duty when it came to the men in her mother's life, her mother might be living in quite different circumstances.

'Isn't it darling?' said Katherine's mother, true to form. 'Liberty. An absolute snip. Couldn't resist.'

The photos were remarkably well preserved considering that Katherine's mother treated the majority of objects as if they were indestructible and then later, peering forlornly at their defunct remains, bemoaned the essentially shoddy nature of modern craftsmanship.

'Look at these,' said Katherine's mother, referring to the photographs in exactly the same tone of voice as she'd used when discussing the purse. 'Aren't these just lovely?'

She passed round the first picture – a passport-sized black-and-white of Katherine's sister Hazel clasping a flaccid teddy. With its rolling eyes and lack of muscle tone, the little creature looked like it had been drugged, lending Hazel (in Katherine's eyes at least) the appearance of some sinister prepubescent abductor.

'The teddy was called Bloot,' said Katherine's mother as the photo went from hand to hand, 'although God knows why. It went all floppy like that after she was sick on it and we had to run it through the wash. There wasn't a thing that girl owned that she wasn't at some point sick on. Honestly, the constitution of a delicate bird.'

'Such a shame she couldn't be here today,' someone said.

'Oh, I know,' said Katherine's mother. 'But she doesn't have a moment to herself these days. She just works and works. And what with all this terrible cow business ...'

Heads nodded in agreement, and although Katherine couldn't be sure, and would later convince herself she'd imagined it, she thought for a moment that more than one pair of eyes flicked her way in the reflex judgement typical of any family gathering: attendance was closely related to employment. People were grateful if you came, but then also assumed that your job was neither important nor demanding, since all the relatives with important and demanding jobs were much too busy to attend more than once a year, at which time they were greeted like knights returning from the Crusades and actively encouraged to leave throughout the day lest anything unduly interfere with their work. Katherine's sister had revelled in this role for several years now, and it irked Katherine that the less Hazel showed up, the more saintly and over-worked she became in everyone's minds, while the more Katherine put in appearances and made an effort to be attentive to the family, the more she was regarded as having wasted her life. It was, admittedly, slightly different on this occasion, given that half the roads were now closed on account of the cows. Everyone that had made it seemed grimly proud, as if they'd traversed a war zone. Katherine couldn't have cared less about the cattle, but she was enjoying the momentary respect her attendance seemed to have inspired.

The second photo was not produced until the first had completed its circuit. It was of Katherine's father, dressed in a waxed jacket and posing awkwardly with a shotgun.

'There's Nick,' said Katherine's mother. 'He didn't hit a thing, of course, but he enjoyed playing the part. He had all the kit, needless to say, but that was Nick. Strong on planning, poor in execution. I took that picture myself.'

She paused pointedly before passing it round, encouraging a few nods of sympathy from the aunts and uncles. Katherine's mother had, for as long as Katherine could remember, reliably played the sympathy card when discussing the man who had fathered her children, lingered a couple of years, and then decamped for Greece with a woman he'd met at the doctor's surgery while waiting to have his cholesterol levels checked. Katherine received two cards a year from her father, for Christmas and her birthday, with a third bonus card if she achieved anything noteworthy. He'd called her just once, soppy-drunk and clearly in the grip of a debilitating mid-life crisis, and told her always to beware of growing up to be like either of her parents.

The photograph circled the table and was followed, with precision timing, by a colour snapshot of Homer, the family dog, who, never the most intelligent of animals, had leapt to his death chasing a tennis ball over a series of felled trees, impaling himself on a shattered branch and leaving Katherine, who had thrown the ball, to explain to her mother why her precious mongrel was not only dead but in fact still needed to be prised from his branch, while her daughter remained inexplicably unharmed and unforgivably dry-eyed.

The next and, as it turned out, final photograph, was of Daniel, Christmas hat tipsily askew, raising a glass from his regal position behind a large roast turkey.

'Ahh,' said Katherine's mother. 'There's Daniel, look. Such a darling. Did you ever meet Daniel? Oh, of course, he came to that thing a few years ago. Such a charmer. I just adored him. Poor Katherine. He's the one that got away, isn't he, dear?'

'Not really,' said Katherine. 'No.'

'Still a rough subject,' said Katherine's mother, smiling at Katherine in a maternal fashion – something she only ever did in public. 'Daniel's doing ever so well these days, of course, unlike some, who shall remain nameless.' Her gaze, morphing like the liquid figures of a digital clock, became sterner. 'So easy to get stuck, isn't it?'

She slid the last picture back into the folds of her purse, snapped the clasp, and returned the purse to her handbag, leaving everyone to look once, briefly, at Katherine, and then gaze uncomfortably at the tabletop, silent until the welcome arrival of coffee, at which point Katherine politely excused herself in order to go to the bathroom and tear a toilet roll in half.

* * *

Katherine didn't like to think of herself as sad. It had a defeatist ring about it. It lacked the pizzazz of, say, rage or mania. But she had to admit that these days she was waking up sad a lot more often than she was waking up happy. What she didn't admit, and what she would never admit, was that this had anything whatsoever to do with Daniel.

It wasn't every morning, the sadness, although it was, it had to be said, more mornings than would have been ideal. Weekends were worst; workdays varied. The weather was largely inconsequential.

Time in front of the mirror didn't help. She got ready in a rush, then adjusted incrementally later. She hadn't been eating well. Things were happening to her skin that she didn't like. Her gums bled onto the toothbrush. It struck her that she was becoming ugly at a grossly inopportune time. Breakfast was frequently skipped in favour of something unhealthy midway through her working morning. She couldn't leave the house without a minimum of three cups of coffee inside her. Recently, she'd started smoking again. It helped cut the gloom. She felt generally breathless but coughed only on a particularly bad day. At some point during the course of her morning, any morning, she would have to schedule time for nausea.

For the past two years, Katherine, having moved from London to Norwich by mistake, had been the facilities manager at a local telecommunications company. Her job had nothing to do with telecommunications, but centred instead on the finer points of workplace management. She was paid, she liked to say, to be an obsessive compulsive. She monitored chairs for ongoing ergonomic acceptability and suitable height in relation to desks and workstations, which she checked in turn to ensure compliance with both company guidelines and national standards for safe and healthy working environments. She performed weekly fire alarm checks and logged the results. Each morning she inspected the building for general standards of hygiene, presentation and safety. She fired at least one cleaner per month. She was widely resented and almost constantly berated. People phoned or messaged at least every hour. Their chairs, their desks, the air conditioning, the coffee-maker, the water cooler, the fluorescent strip lighting – nothing was ever to their liking. The numerous changes Katherine was obliged to implement in order to keep step with current health and safety legislation made her the public advocate of widely bemoaned alterations. Smokers had to walk further from the building. Breaks had to be re-negotiated. Her job allowed no flexibility, meaning that she frequently came off as humourless and rigid. The better she was at her job, the more people hated her. By general consensus, Katherine was very good at her job.

Aside from the basic majority of colleagues who couldn't stand her, there also existed a splinter group comprising the men who wanted to fuck her. Katherine thought of them as contested territory. Some of them wanted to fuck her because they liked her, and some of them wanted to fuck her because they hated her. This suited Katherine reasonably well. Sometimes she fucked men because she felt good about herself, and sometimes she fucked them because she hated herself. The trick was to find the right man for the moment, because fucking a man who hated you during a rare moment of quite liking yourself was counter-productive, and fucking a man who was sort of in love with you at the peak of your self-hatred was nauseating.

To date, Katherine had fucked three men in her office, one of whom, Keith, she was still fucking on a semi-regular basis. The other two, Brian and Mike, had faded ingloriously into the middle distance, lost amidst the M&S suits and male-pattern baldness. Brian had been first. She'd broken her no-office rule for Brian and, with hindsight, he hadn't been anywhere near worth it. She'd broken her married-man rule too, and the rule about men with kids. She resented this because it seemed, in her mind and, she imagined, in the minds of others, to afford Brian a sense of history he in no way deserved. The reality was, at the time Katherine had made a conscious and not entirely irrational decision to jettison so many of the rules by which she had up to that point lived her life, Brian had happened to be in the immediate vicinity, and had happened, moreover, to be a living exemplar of several of those rules. Hence the sex, which took place quite suddenly one Tuesday afternoon after he drove her home, continued through to the following month, and then ended when Katherine began wondering if some of her rules had in actual fact been pretty sensible. Brian was fifty-something (another rule, now that she thought about it), fat, and in the midst of an epic crisis. He drove a yellow Jaguar and had a son called Chicane. They never finished with each other or anything so tiresome. Katherine simply ceased to acknowledge his existence and the message was quietly, perhaps even gratefully, received.

Mike was, on the outside at least, different. He was Katherine's age (thirty, although there was room for adjustment depending on her mood), single, and surprisingly good in bed. Even more surprisingly, Katherine found him to be capable of several almost full-length conversations when the mood took him. Their affair (it wasn't really an affair, but Katherine liked to define it as such because it added value to the experience and because she'd not long previously fucked Brian and was hoping, in a secret, never-to-be-admitted way, that she might be in a phase of having affairs, which would of course completely legitimise her sleeping with Mike) lasted almost two months. It ended when Mike found out that Katherine had slept with Brian. Much to Katherine's irritation, Mike turned out to be in possession of what he proudly called a moral compass. Katherine was not impressed. As far as she was concerned, morals were what dense people clung to in lieu of a personality. She told Mike as much after he tried to annex the high ground over the whole adultery issue. He ignored her. He couldn't respect her, he said. Katherine would always remember him walking away from the drinks cooler, shaking his head and muttering softly, Poor Chicane ... poor, poor Chicane. She felt grimly vindicated. Mike didn't have any morals. He just had a bruised male ego and an inability to express himself.

All this, of course, had been a while ago, and there had been other, non-office-based men floating around during the same time period. Nothing had gone well. Katherine had started waking up sad a lot more often. The thing with her skin had started. She'd gained weight, then lost it, then lost a little more. Sleep was becoming increasingly difficult. Once, during a stretch of annual leave she'd taken purely to use up her quota and which she'd spent wearing a cereal-caked dressing gown and staring slack-faced at Nazis on the History Channel, she'd swallowed a fistful of pills and curled up in bed waiting to die, only to wake up five hours later in a puddle of vomit, many of the pills still whole in the mess. She had words with herself. She got dressed the next day and did her makeup and went into the city and collided with Keith, who suggested coffee, then food, then violent, bruising sex in his garage, her stomach pressed against the hot, ticking metal of his car bonnet.

'I remember once ...' said Keith, lying back against the car afterwards, Katherine beside him, both of them smoking and waiting for the pain to subside. 'What was I ... Fuck it, it's gone.'

* * *

There were days when it all seemed sordid and doomed; days which, oddly, Katherine romanticised more than the days of hope. There was something doomed about Keith generally, she thought, and she liked it. He was forty-one (because, she thought, once you'd broken a rule, it was no longer really a rule, and so couldn't be said to have been broken a second time); thin on top and thick round the middle. At work he wore crumpled linen and skinny ties. In the evenings he favoured faded black denims and battered Converse. He liked songs about blood and blackness: guitar-driven thrash-outs that made him screw up his face and clench his teeth like a man battling a bowel obstruction. He had pale, slightly waxy skin and grey eyes with a white ring around the iris. Katherine had read somewhere that this had medical implications but she couldn't remember what they were and so chose not to mention it. She liked the idea that Keith was defective; that he might be dying. She liked the fact that he was open about what he called his heroin years. She even liked the way he hurt her in bed: the sprained shoulder, the deep gouge on her left thigh. Keith was different in what Katherine saw as complementary ways. He would never love her, would probably never love anyone or anything, and Katherine admired this about him. He seemed beyond the concerns that threatened daily (yes, daily by now) to swallow her whole. By definition, of course, this also placed him beyond her, but she liked that too.

* * *

She didn't live in London. There were mornings when she had to stare forcefully into the mirror and repeat this to herself like a mantra. On a good morning she could just about say the name of her actual location, but it was hard. She and Daniel had moved here together, ostensibly for his job. There were unspoken implications regarding the pitter-patter of little feet. But announcements were not forthcoming, and then they broke up, and then London looked like it would be lonely, and now she was stuck.


Excerpted from Idiopathy by Sam Byers. Copyright © 2013 Sam Byers. Excerpted by permission of Faber and Faber, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Sam Byers is a graduate of the master's program in creative writing at the University of East Anglia. His fiction has been published in Granta and he regularly reviews books for The Times Literary Supplement. He was born in 1979.

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