“Inter faeces et urinam nascimur,” St Augustine of Hippo is credited with remarking. “We’re born between shit and piss.” However in most societies, more often than not, we try to maintain these issues out of sight and out of thoughts: there are deep taboos settled on these most simple human commonalities. Why would possibly that be?
Sam Byers’ third novel poses the query in earnest. Not since Timothy Mo’s Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard, I feel, has there been a mainstream literary novel so fiercely and lovingly dedicated to the feculent: complete paragraphs and pages are devoted to mucous, vomit, slicks of heat diarrhoea, puddles of piss, maggoty sores and liquefying rotten meat. It’s possible you’ll discover that disgusting. There once more, it’s possible you’ll be a part of the issue. However I’m getting forward of myself.
Byers’ protagonist, Maya, has been homeless for a 12 months, and resides in a squatter camp when she’s picked up by the police in a raid. We don’t be taught an excessive amount of about her background – solely that she had a white-collar job and loving dad and mom earlier than struggling an existential disaster (one thing to do with dwelling below capitalism, and the insupportable expectation of others that she be joyful) and steadily withdrawing from her personal life. Anyway, as a result of she scrubs up effectively, appears basically sane and isn’t a hopeless addict, capitalism desires her again.
Whereas she’s in custody, a few unctuous tech firm PR males present as much as supply her a deal. She will get a flat, a cellphone, a laptop computer and a job; and in alternate she’s to doc her new life in an Instagram feed known as “Maya’s journey”. The job is at an organization the place she helps to filter “inappropriate” materials from the web. Byers’ humour, decrease within the combine than in his earlier novels Idiopathy and Perfidious Albion, comes out right here: she spends each working day watching a stream of vile photographs and swiping left or proper to just accept or reject them, like somebody Tinder-dating the darkish net.
By means of remedy or company modishness, her employers ship employees on periodic wellness retreats. On getting back from one in all these – stuffed with kale smoothie and whalesong, and craving low cost white bread and chocolate – Maya goes on a binge, whereupon a long-delayed and really substantial poo sparks an epiphany:
What I’d produced was superb. My shit was so ample, so sturdy, that it shaped a type of cathedral or citadel, a deep-brown edifice that rose out of its rust-coloured moat and tapered to a spire about midway up the bowl.
Finally, Maya feels alive. And when she then makes herself spectacularly sick by dipping a little bit of bread in her personal shit and consuming it, she feels nonetheless extra alive. Late capitalism despatched her on a “wellness retreat”; nevertheless it’s on her personal initiative that she burns her bridges and heads off on an sickness retreat. She falls in with an eccentric and equally marginalised girl known as Zelma, who likes to annotate shiny magazines and deface wellness-themed billboards; they squat in an industrial property and, effectively, roll round in their very own filth. Quickly – “Come be a part of our illness!” – they appeal to a handful of acolytes.
An enthusiastic embrace of every part that ordinary society tends to disapprove of (crapping the place you eat, welcoming lesions and pustules, sporting necklaces of useless rats, and – worse – doing nothing clearly economically productive) turns into the substance, as they see it, of a reference to a extra important reality and a deeper freedom; in addition to being a shock hit on Instagram. That is what you might need received if Melville’s Bartleby had gone the soiled protest route.
The query that the novel chews over, or no less than makes obtainable for consideration, is whether or not Maya and her buddies’ behaviour is a type of radical anti-capitalist resistance, a deeper form of existential heroism – or whether or not, as “society” predictably sufficient appears to suppose, it’s merely a manifestation of psychological sickness. These issues might not be mutually unique, in fact; nor might the reply be the identical for every of the ladies who joins the group – and it’s one of many novel’s strengths that it permits for an advanced response.
You generally see it stated of high-concept works like this one which the thought is formidable however the execution falls brief. Right here, I’d put it the opposite method spherical. Byers is a eager and efficient stylist, and he’s fantastically astute concerning the complicated shifts and negotiations between his characters. However the huge concepts right here – the repressions and paradoxes of “civilisation”, the loops of resistance and co-option and commoditisation – are so huge and clunking (and effectively established sufficient within the best hits of Freud, Foucault, Michel de Certeau, JG Ballard, John Grey, Sartre …) that they overshadow the subtler work that Byers’ prose is doing. For amid the lurid color and the grand theoretical gestures is a poignant story of friendship and isolation, of human connections made and misplaced. There’s one thing fascinating rising in all that filth.
• Come Be part of Our Illness is revealed by Faber (£16.99). To order a replica go to guardianbookshop.com. Supply fees might apply.