Idiopathy: A Novel

Idiopathy: A Novel

by Sam Byers


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A debut novel of love, narcissism, and ailing cattle

Idiopathy (idēˈäpəTHē): a disease or condition which arises spontaneously or for which the cause is unknown.

Idiopathy is a novel that is 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780865478121
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 06/03/2014
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About 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.

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.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Epigraph 1,
Epigraph 2,
Begin Reading,
A Note About the Author,

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