Idiopathy: A Novel


A debut novel of love, narcissism, and ailing cattle

Idiopathy (ɪdɪˈɒpəθi): 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...

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Idiopathy: A Novel

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A debut novel of love, narcissism, and ailing cattle

Idiopathy (ɪdɪˈɒpəθi): 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.

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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

The New York Times Book Review - Joshua Cohen
Even as the Katherine-Daniel-Nathan reunion threatens to become an emotional abattoir, Byers's prose remains spreadsheet-specific, mock analytical, funny. The trend toward jargon and a 50 percent chance of an a.c.r.o.n.y.m. joke in every chapter gives rise to a welcome British version of E.S.L. — Ennui as a Second Language, or Emulating Sam Lipsyte, a style that entertains through mortification, and mortifies through…you get it.
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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780865477643
  • Publisher: Faber and Faber
  • Publication date: 6/4/2013
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 968,301
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

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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Read an Excerpt

The more effort she invested in people, the less Katherine seemed able to overlook their flaws. Jules was Too Compassionate. Dawn Smelled Too Much. Debbie’s Patience was annoying. They were all annoying. They nibbled their food in naughty little bites because they were watching their weight. They sent global emails listing fifteen things that make you glad to be alive. They thought capital punishment had its uses but only for really bad crimes and only if you could be really sure the person did it. The ones with husbands moaned about their husbands. The ones without husbands wanted husbands. They all definitely wanted more stuff but their houses and flats were very cluttered and they felt they should really get rid of some stuff because the minimalist look was in but then on the other hand it wasn’t homely, was it, the minimalist look. Many of them wanted to do something worthwhile because they admired people who did things that were worthwhile. They all agreed there was a lot of suffering in the world. Often one of them was coming down with something, and the others would worry that they were about to come down with something, although often they would not and then they would all agree that they were probably just run-down. Yoghurts had a lot more calories than any of them ever really imagined. Somehow, they had all been given computers that were particularly recalcitrant. They liked each other only to the extent that they themselves wanted to be liked. When one stood up to go to the toilet or make a cup of tea the others talked about her, about how she smelled too much or how her patience was wearing them all thin.

For Katherine, a sense of connection with others was no different to the cashmere cardigan; the much-desired boyfriend. She pined for it; drew it towards her; felt herself open ever so slightly outwards, and then recoiled, convinced that the happiness she’d sought was now a responsibility to be managed in much the same way as she managed the height of chairs and the temperature of the air-con: a series of small adjustments which would result, as she made them, in the gradual erosion of her core.

Katherine got caught in the lift with Keith, having wrongly assumed he was now committed to the stairs, and realised with sinking horror that she still wanted him to want to sleep with her.

He said, ‘I’m in such a calm place right now. I feel like I’m getting back to the person I’ve always wanted to be.’

‘You look fat,’ she said. ‘Maybe the person you’ve always wanted to be is fat.’

‘You’re angry,’ he said. ‘Anything I can do?’

‘Maybe we could meet up sometime,’ she said.

‘I don’t think so,’ said Keith with a smile that was painfully kind. ‘I don’t think that would help.’

‘Don’t pity me,’ she said. ‘Don’t you fucking dare.’

‘You’re right. Better to just stalk around pitying yourself, right, princess?’

‘You prick.’

‘Right back at you,’ he called, as she got off on the wrong floor.

Later, she saw him talking to Claire Demoines, who stood on tiptoe in her fuck-off-red fuck-me heels and gave him a love-me hug. Katherine went round and kicked the safety catches off four of the fire extinguishers so as to have a job to distract her in the afternoon.

The cows were endless. They went on and on. She went home every evening and caught up with their lack of movement.

‘You join us live and exclusive,’ barked Bill Palmer to camera, eyes wide above his protective face mask; rubber-gloved hands gesticulating excitedly towards the motionless cow behind him. ‘Behind me is Simone, the first infected cow to be filmed. Beside me here is local vet Bob Chevington. Bob, tell me what we’re seeing here.’

Bill Palmer was an ex-war reporter stuck doing domestic reports after valiantly getting himself shot on camera. He was, Katherine thought, clearly relishing this unusual opportunity for drama, and had become something of a ubiquitous presence through what it now seemed de rigueur to refer to as the crisis. His approach was basically sartorial. Outside embassies he wore the foreign correspondent’s uniform of blue cotton shirt and pleated chinos. In Afghanistan it was sandy camoufl age and a range of helmets. Now, clearly alert to the possibility of both drama and further journalistic recognition, he was in a white boiler suit with the hood pooled insouciantly at his neck, his mane of white hair thrust sideways by a stiff breeze; his generous eyebrows knitted into a frown that spoke of news valiantly borne in the face of heavy peril.

‘Well, Bill, what we’re seeing here is classic Bovine Idiopathic Entrancement,’ said the vet. ‘This animal has been staring straight ahead for over twenty-four hours. It remains completely motionless. It is totally unresponsive to stimulus.’

‘And what’s the prognosis, Bob?’

‘Death. Probably by dehydration.’

‘Dark times,’ said Bill. ‘Here’s Chastity with the weather.’

The camera lingered on the stricken cow, its glazed, dead eyes seemingly looking straight at Katherine.

All the old patterns were resurfacing. She could see them; name them; but felt powerless to intervene. The feeling was similar to jamming her fingers down her throat and dry-heaving all the food she’d neglected to eat. She was gagging on an emotional nothingness, and in an attempt to circumvent it she returned to the tried-and-tested method of ascribing to Daniel the things she couldn’t feel for herself, or perhaps felt but couldn’t name. It was all so familiar – her disaffection with kindness at the office so neatly mirroring her disaffection with Daniel. She used to test his commitment by hurting him. She threatened to leave him, or cheat on him, then watched his face and measured the depth of his feelings for her by the extent to which it crumbled. He was insecure; prone to worry. If he ever became confident, she thought, it would mean that he no longer loved her, since to love someone is to worry; to need someone is to fear the inevitability of their absence. 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 codependent ennui: companionship, contentment, compromise; where one person’s love for another was no longer stated simply because it was no longer questioned; where the key indicator not only of love but also of solidity would simply be the mere fact of the solidity and love that had gone before. No, no, she 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.

She went back to the charity shop where she’d donated Keith’s vibrator. She told them she’d left something in the bag by accident and wanted it back. The woman looked blank yet suspiciously relaxed.

‘I haven’t seen anything,’ she said. ‘What was it you left?’

‘A vibrator,’ said Katherine.

‘Oh. Um …’

‘You can’t miss it,’ said Katherine. ‘It’s shaped like an enormous penis and on the side it says The Widowmaker in day-glo letters.’

‘I don’t think I …’

‘I know you’ve got it,’ said Katherine.

‘I assure you I haven’t.’

‘Give it back.’

‘I would if I could.’

‘Whatever,’ said Katherine.

Claire Demoines did a lap of Katherine’s floor and dropped the news, to which she had, she explained, been privy for some time but which she had promised not to disclose as it was both private and sensitive.

‘He really wasn’t sure he wanted anyone to know,’ Katherine overheard her saying in a low voice to Jules and Debbie and Carol. ‘But I mean we’ve talked about it a lot and I said I thought he’d probably feel better if it was out there and he didn’t have to cover it up any more.’

‘Mmmm,’ said Jules, being So Compassionate. ‘He’s being So Brave.’

‘There’s such a taboo, isn’t there?’ said Carol.

‘It’s like you can’t even discuss it,’ said Debbie. ‘But he’s really Putting It Out There, which is So Admirable.’

‘I just feel really privileged he felt able to open up to me,’ said Claire.

‘Mmm,’ said Debbie, Jules and Carol, all of whom, Katherine knew, now hated Claire for being the person Keith had opened up to more than any of them despite all of their overweening efforts to get Keith to open up. Not that they cared about Keith, of course, or that they really desperately wanted to be involved, but, as Debbie would later put it to Katherine, who exactly did Claire Demoines think she was, just flouncing in after, what, a week? and getting Keith, who they’d all known much longer, to totally open up to her.

‘What am I missing?’ said Katherine brightly, sidling up to Claire Demoines and cocking a glance at the intricacy of her tights. Keith would ladder those in a heartbeat, she thought, with his ghastly fingers.

‘Keith’s been seeing someone,’ said Claire.

‘Great,’ said Katherine. ‘How lovely. Is it serious?’

‘No, not like that. He’s been undergoing treatment.’ She invested the term with all the gravity she could muster.

Katherine did a mental checklist of all the things for which Keith might possibly wish to seek treatment. His toxic personality aside, he was quite prone to recurrent urinary tract infections, around which she supposed it was possible to say there was something of a taboo.

‘Right,’ said Katherine. ‘Is it serious?’

‘He’s a sex addict,’ said Debbie, unable to contain herself. ‘But now he’s getting some treatment.’

‘What does the treatment entail?’ said Katherine. ‘Is it like being a heroin addict? Can you get some sort of sex substitute on prescription?’

‘Well, it’s a talking cure,’ said Claire flatly.

‘Like a prostitute, you mean,’ said Katherine.

‘No, like an analyst.’

‘So he’s seeing a shrink because he can’t stop shagging people.’

‘His toxic and addictive attitude to sex has been greatly damaging his relationships,’ said Claire.

‘Shagging people does that,’ said Katherine.

By lunchtime the details were all round the office. Keith was undergoing some sort of aversion therapy. He wore a rubber band round his wrist so he could twang it whenever he felt tempted. This would, apparently, transport him back to certain states of aversion and restraint he’d explored under hypnosis. He told Debbie, in the strictest confidence, that he’d looked back on some of the things his addiction had made him do and, although he didn’t want to go into detail for fear of offending Debbie or causing her never to wish to interact with him again, he was not proud of himself. So he had, he explained to Carol in the strictest confidence, taken some of those experiences and had a good hard look at them and then related them to a therapist, who had explained that he had an addiction, and that his addiction was poisoning his life, and that what he needed to do was build meaningful relationships with women without having sex with them. Apparently, he’d explained to Claire in the strictest confidence, his therapist had pointed out that a perfectly natural consequence of building meaningful relationships with women without sleeping with them would be that he would want to sleep with them. This would be partly because he was building a meaningful relationship, which is always arousing, and partly because sex would now feel like something of a taboo, which was, as everyone knew, kind of sexy.

So, Keith quietly explained to Debbie, Carol, Claire and Dawn, who by now had overcome their disappointment at realising they all actually had Keith’s confidence and tended to talk to him in a little cluster, the point was that he should not, under any circumstances, reduce his contact with women. Indeed, he should increase his contact with women, since that was how he was going to go about building better relationships with them. So really, what he was saying was that he needed the help of the women of the office. Would they, he wondered, could they possibly, find the time to help him practise some meaningful relationships by, say, going to coffee with him, or perhaps just having a spot of lunch or even, as time went on and Keith’s powers of resistance grew stronger, maybe even going to dinner? They could feel perfectly safe, he told them, not only because his days of basically being an absolute animal when it came to sex were behind him, but also because his aversion therapy meant he could very easily, if the inclination to sleep with any of them arose (which, he assured them, it very definitely would, because they were all very attractive, which was precisely why he was enlisting their support), snap his elastic band, which his therapist had placed there to form an anchor with the images of aversion they’d worked on together which, Keith gravely informed the assembled women, were so repellent that a woman would basically have to be the most attractive woman alive to still seem attractive after he’d associated her in his head with what were, he near-whispered, very unpleasant things indeed.

‘This is horrendous,’ said Katherine to Debbie in the staffroom.

‘Isn’t it?’ said Debbie, gazing wistfully after Keith. ‘All those awful things he wanted to do …’

Excerpted from Idiopathy by Sam Byers. Copyright © 2013 by Sam Byers. Published in 2013 by Faber And Faber, Inc. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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