Byers’ sharply focused prose imbues even the everyday with a hyper-real quality, everything “throbbing at life’s unique frequency”, and he revels in the Swiftian grotesque, describing putrefaction with an almost mystical grandeur...
Yet Come Join Our Disease is a blistering critique of 21st-century life. By turns unnerving, disgusting and enthralling, the novel exposes the limits of radicalism, and the alienation inevitable in a society where even altruism has become a commodity.
“Why must there always be ideas?” rages Maya, the narrator of this disturbingly exceptional novel. “Why is nothing too much to ask for?” Where Sam Byers’s previous two works have delighted in the intricacies of the modern world, minutely satirising the compromises we make – socially, politically, commercially – this one drives a singular tunnel to the heart of what it means to be a human. Maya is intent on hacking away every last vestige of civilisation until – trigger warning – she is lying happily in her own piss, shit and other assorted effluvia...So, no, this is not a comfortable read. Not just because of the many effluvia-based scenes, whose immediacy is always mitigated by the narration, which, recollected in later tranquillity, is always honed and articulate, the vocabulary considered and precise. It’s more that the discomfort – the dis-ease of the title – arises directly from Maya’s own intensity, from her willingness to push herself to the total self-abnegation she craves. She blazes with all the anger of Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist, she has the unflinching doggedness of Minghella’s Gemma from radio play Cigarettes and Chocolate, but she wants so much less than either of them.
yers is the author of two previous satirical novels, Idiopathy (2013) and Perfidious Albion (2018). His overriding target is the hollowing out of public discourse in the social media age (and, in this case, self-help culture), which, to take the example of Charlie Brooker, can be played for comedic (Nathan Barley) or nightmarish (Black Mirror) effect. This considerably darker new work falls into the latter category. Politically astute, endlessly quotable and highly visual (there is considerable filmic potential – at least for an audience with a strong stomach): the guy can write, is one smart cookie, and Come Join Our Disease is quite outstanding.
Come Join Our Disease is so bold and interesting that I can imagine it becoming a cult classic, but even saying this dismisses it to the realms of something trendy and niche. Byers’s mastery of tone and attentiveness to every psychological shift confirms him as one of the most accomplished novelists of his generation. The world he creates is so fully realised that anything you read afterwards feels a bit half-hearted. Less than 20 pages from the end a meditation on human disintegration — and the love that can arise from sharing in one another’s decay — moved me to tears. It felt piercingly wise and, dare I say it, beautiful.