London: Faber and Faber, 2013. 310 pages. $26.00.
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In the midst of the lingering global economic crisis, it has become common to find articles lamenting the future of the “Peter Pan generation”—those X and Y millenials who have put off marriage, jobs that include 401Ks, home-ownership, and child-rearing. In a 2010 New York Times Magazine cover article that set off a rash of similar investigations, Robin Marantz Henig wrote: “It’s happening all over, in all sorts of families, not just young people moving back home but also young people taking longer to reach adulthood overall. . . . The traditional cycle seems to have gone off course.” British author Sam Byers, who was born in 1979, has written a debut novel that revels in the muck of his generation’s aimlessness. The result is a harrowing tale about our dwindling capacity for empathy.
Idiopathy weaves together the lives of Katherine, Daniel, and Nathan—a trio of the Peter Pan generation limping through their day-to-day in various states of ennui in the town of Norwich, England. The novel’s plot hinges on the return of Nathan following a disappearance (he was in a mental institution), which brings together his former friends Daniel and Katherine, themselves former lovers, for the first time since their breakup. Nathan is physically scarred, disfigured by his own hand, and though he tries to cover up the damage, he is an open book. Daniel and Katherine, on the other hand, carry their wounds inside. Byers devotes the last third of his novel to one night in which the three come together again and explore the limits of their ability to be cruel and abuse one another not for their own gain but just because they can, because they are trying to feel something.
While Nathan remains a hazy figure in the book—both because of his disappearance and also because Byers devotes less time to fleshing out his story—Katherine and Daniel, their mutual desire both to relive and forget the years they spent together, are the black hearts of Idiopathy. The novel opens with Katherine, a little over a year removed from her five-year relationship with Daniel. She has spent the time since having meaningless sex with men who disgust her, the result of which is in an unwanted pregnancy she keeps hidden from coworkers and family. Katherine is stunted, though it is hard to pinpoint the moment of trauma that caused her to become so numb. Byers writes, “Unmoved was a word that came up a lot, both in Katherine’s head and in other people’s descriptions of her. Emotionally hard-to-impress, was the way she preferred to think about it.” Katherine’s lack of empathy cripples her capacity to relate to the people around her; she treats family, coworkers, and Daniel with an irrational meanness.
Daniel is also stunted, though not in the hostile manner of Katherine. He is apathetic—going through the motions. Byers writes, “He found the easiest disguise blandness.” A mirror to this blandness is his current girlfriend Angelica, a sweet girl who cooks lentils and hosts dinner parties that Daniel can’t muster the energy to appreciate. Byers is devastating when describing Daniel and Angelica’s going-through-the-motions relationship of quiet desperation: “She couldn’t sleep without touching him, it seemed, and he couldn’t sleep when he was touched.” At one point, Daniel compares Angelica to fast food: “People bought McDonald’s because they knew what they were getting. Daniel stayed with Angelica for much the same reason. She was as she’d been advertised.”
Based on this description, Idiopathy might sound like a quiet book— and it’s true that Byers’ writing resonates most when he’s picking apart the tiny disappointments of a long-term relationship or a conversation with an old friend. Despite this, much of the attention the book is likely to receive will be because of its toe-dips into satire. Nathan’s mother has written a book and has a website (motherswhosurvived.com). Survived what you might ask? Their children. In addition, flashing into the text at various times is news about a mysterious cattle disease: Bovine Idiopathic Entrancement. “Any indication that a cow might be staring excessively, ceasing to move, desisting from the common bovine behaviors such as cud-chewing and tail-flicking, or indeed simply standing alone for any period of time needs to be reported immediately.” The metaphor is fairly pat: our protagonists have ceased to properly feel, have become bovine. The metaphor is interesting primarily because the description Bovine Idiopathic Entrancement describes fairly common cow behavior. Extending that same logic to our three protagonists is a frightening proposition. If Katherine, Daniel, and Nathan’s inability to feel, to emote, makes them representative of their generation, then Idiopathy is downright apocalyptic.
Idiopathy is a difficult book to pin down. At times it is laugh-out-loud funny, and Byers’ sense of humor is acute. At one point an activist friend of Angelica’s says to Daniel: “You weren’t taking me seriously? But now you are. Now you are. Because I’ve got a cow, motherfucker.” And yet despite its moments of levity, Idiopathy is ultimately haunting. Byers taps into the zeitgeist of his generation and finds only infection, disease, sickness. Perhaps it takes a Brit to delve so fiercely into the roots of our current cultural malaise. On television right now the final season of the American version of The Office is limping to conclusion. The show didn’t find success stateside until it softened up on the uncomfortable humor Ricky Gervais hallmarked in the British original. In the second season of the British show, Gervais amplified the distasteful personality quirks of his character and turned humor into horror. Byers is up to something similar in Idiopathy. The novel is a wolf in sheep’s clothing—promising first to poke fun at its author’s generation before pivoting and becoming something more important—a cautionary account of his generation’s indifference and their dwindling capacity to feel.