Come Join Our Disease: Dawn raids, detoxes and dirty protests

Book review: Sam Byers evokes a dark world of alienation in this politically astute novel

Sam Byers examines the hollowing out of public discourse in the social media age. Photograph:  Simone Padovani/ Awakening/Getty Images

Sam Byers examines the hollowing out of public discourse in the social media age. Photograph: Simone Padovani/ Awakening/Getty Images

Sat, Mar 20, 2021, 06:00

   
 

Book Title:
Come Join Our Disease

ISBN-13:
978-0571360086

Author:
Sam Byers

Publisher:
Faber

Guideline Price:
£16.99

Maya Devereaux has been homeless for more than a year when the encampment she has lived in for a month is dawn raided and broken up. After being fingerprinted and photographed, she is interviewed by Seth and Ryan, a double act of vacuous corporate-speak, who are “not the usual faces of officialdom” – neither policemen nor council workers – but representatives of the Giving Department of Green. (“Tech solutions, communications, web content, search. Your basic highly disruptive global player.”)

Maya learns she has been selected for Green’s “opportunity programme”, the aim of which is “to humanize homelessness. Select a candidate, offer a comprehensive second chance, then make that second chance public and build a following. Payoff was an even split: a new life for the candidate, brand boost for the sponsors.”

Despite realising that for Seth and Ryan, like “the men who tried to slip into my tent at night…Empathy was just another tactic of manipulation”, she doubts her ability to survive on the streets for much longer, and so accepts their offer. They furnish her with an Instagram account, called Maya’s Journey, and a job at Pict, where she “parses online content for suitability” – which essentially means she does what lots of those employed by Google and Facebook in the Dublin docklands do: make sure vile or potentially triggering images don’t find their way on to client websites.

Pict has a wellbeing programme, or rather, “mandatory detoxes”: “You start work with them, and they start work on you.” The whole experience of her first weekend retreat at BodyTemple (juice, yoga, meditation: the mindlessness of mindfulness) makes Maya physically sick. While she continues with the classes back in London, she senses that they are just an extracurricular forum for vaguely spiritual twentysomethings, who work in PR, advertising or media, to network.

The daily Overground commute is the main evocation of the alienation of urban nullity, coupled with the redundant nature of most work (before you are actually made redundant), and Maya’s inability to sustain it was one of the chief reasons she fell into homelessness. As we are frequently told, 60-70 per cent of the populations of Britain and the US live three paycheques away from a similar fate. For the precariat, it’s a stark choice between the pointless mundanity of exploitative work or winding up on the streets – unless you have wealthy parents to subsidise you.

Though largely friendless (a bout of homelessness will do that to you), Maya chums up with an environmentally ill woman, Zelma, who enjoys defacing magazine articles and advertising billboards with factual corrections of their fatuous claims. The story becomes marginally less interesting, and much more repulsive, once Maya walks out of her office building for the last time, having posted an image of her faeces on Maya’s Journey, and with Zelma fetches up in a disused warehouse on an industrial estate.

The focus shifts from Maya’s uncomfortable negotiations with the corporate world to the dynamics and tensions between the two friends and the other women who, having been vetted, come to join them – additions which don’t always feel necessary. They engage in a dirty protest on a massive scale, defecating and urinating where and when the urge takes them, but their lack of an agenda other than “liberation through decay” increasingly infuriates the wider community. It all gets rather messy.

Scatological metaphor

Flaws? First-person Maya analyses society’s ills with the acuity of a socioeconomics PhD, and her own motivations with the insight of an unusually competent psychotherapist, and she writes like a…well, like a writer – all without any back story of significant study and/or academic achievement, which is not by any means unlikely, but still uncommon. Her previous job, before Pict, was also as an unfulfilled office drone, so we don’t know what exactly she ever wanted to be, if anything at all.

Some will baulk at the obviousness of the scatological metaphor – society is sh*t, we produce sh*t, let’s celebrate the sh*t – although it does have a precedent in what Middleton Murry referred to as Swift’s “excremental vision”. But that objection rather depends on how valid you think the analogy is, which in turn depends on how well you think society is functioning.

Byers 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.