“London came upon my senses like a glorious illness,” narrates Maya Devereaux in Come Join Our Disease. Sam Byers’ darkly comic satire investigates the binaries that divide society: health versus sickness; growth versus decay; compliance versus resistance.
The author specialises in this kind of close-to-the-bone speculative fiction: Byers’ debut novel Idiopathy (2013) featured a mysterious bovine epidemic, and this, his third, tunes into our pandemic-fuelled anxieties about physical human contact.
Writing in the tradition of JG Ballard, Tom McCarthy and Dave Eggers, Byers scrutinises the distortions of a digital age where the concept of freedom has been diminished by social media, where choice is seemingly endless but is, in fact, rigidly circumscribed.
Maya has been sleeping rough for a year when she’s selected for a scheme aiming to “humanise homelessness”. In exchange for the kudos this brings her sponsors, Green (a tech giant that also appears in Byers’ 2018 Brexit novel Perfidious Albion), she receives a flat and a job filtering “inappropriate” visual web content; she just has to chronicle her redemptive “journey” on Instagram.
Byers’ ear for idiomatic absurdity delivers an incisive, if familiar, send-up of self-serving corporate philanthropy. Maya’s employer, a company named Pict, offers a mandatory staff wellness programme, designed to offset the effects of their exposure to digital depravity. But a compulsory detox weekend plants the seeds of Maya’s rebellion against the repackaging of her life into an inspirational narrative arc, and the insatiable demands of a system fixated on economic and personal growth.
Maya meets Zelma, who — unable to work because of an undiagnosable condition — defaces advertisements promoting exclusionary health and beauty ideals. Their friendship gives Maya courage to spurn the Faustian pact that has turned her into an advert. To defy her sponsors, she posts a shocking photo on Instagram that shatters her image of grateful conformity and sparks a “digital dirty protest”.
The slogan “Release Yourself” (#ComeJoinOurDisease) — a cri de cœur against self-optimisation, detoxification, body shame — draws other women to join her and Zelma in a vacant building, where they find transcendence in hedonistic filth. But as bodies sicken, tensions escalate, and Maya realises that even nihilism becomes as oppressive as the ideologies it rejects. As Zelma says, “no one gets to be nothing”.
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.
The freedom that Maya doggedly pursues is like a hologram that dissolves at close quarters. Her friendship with the magnetic, elusive Zelma forms the book’s emotional core, but ultimately ideas take precedence, and a third-person narration might have helped to quash the creeping suspicion that Maya’s voice is indistinguishable from Byers’.
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.
Come Join Our Disease, by Sam Byers, Faber & Faber, RRP£16.99, 368 pages
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