Empire Of Dirt: Sam Byers On His New Novel, Come Join Our Disease

Sam Byers' new novel imagines a shit-stained temporary autonomous zone in E10. The author of Idiopathy and Perfidious Albion talks to Robert Barry about writing, radicalism and rot

Come Join Our Disease is not a book about music, nor does it really concern travel in any way. But no book has ever reminded me so vividly of how it felt to be in a band, on tour for weeks or months at a time. This book is about a group of people who choose, for various reasons, to live in and amongst their own ordure for a period of time. Reading its florid descriptions of surfaces caked in piss and shit, mountains of booze and takeaway food arriving unprompted from who knows where and quickly piling up, rotting away, barely distinguishable from the morass of filth covering everything, I thought to myself: yes, that’s what our tourbus was like by the time we got to Chicago back in the Autumn of oh-seven.

When I mention this to the book’s author, Sam Byers, over a Zoom call one afternoon the other week, he laughs but also covers his mouth with his wrist in the manner of someone rendered slightly appalled and faintly nauseous. “Yeah, I –” he shakes his head from side to side with a slight grimace “– hadn’t thought of that connection, actually. Makes a lot of sense.”

Byers once played a little guitar himself. “When I was at school, I was much more into music,” he tells me. But it was that whole “performance aspect of it” that never quite sat right with him. Instead, in his late teens, he discovered the Beats (“so predictable…” he sighs) and started writing. “By the time I was at university, there wasn’t anything else I wanted to do.” Today, after an award-winning debut (2013’s Idiopathy) set against the backdrop of a BSE-like epidemic afflicting the nation’s cattle, and a follow-up (2018’s Perfidious Albion) about a Farage-like populist stirring up discontent in East Anglia, Byers is one of Britain’s premier satirists, a sharp-eyed chronicler of the country’s peculiarly tawdry national malaise.

But despite its vaguely epidemiological-sounding title, Byers’ latest book steps back from diagnosing the state of the nation, just as its characters, too, choose to withdraw from the world to a trading estate in Leyton, to build there a temple of rot, a sort of guanotopia in evermore dirty protest against the needling demands of the modern world. “I began to realise that decay is not something that arrives,” the book’s narrator Maya tells us, “it is something that reveals itself always to have been present. It’s everything we live with an try to forget: the mutating cells beneath slackening skin, the blood and viscera beneath a pretty face. In imagining my own gradual putrefaction, I’d fixated on the visible, the tangible, the kind of rot over which I could run my fingers and tongue. As the weeks went on, I came to understand that shit comes in many forms, that there are myriad ways in which we have to clean up after ourselves, and each other.”

What was the starting point for this book? Where does it come from?

There are two strands. Looking back at the first two books, I feel like I was moving towards an idea of radicalism. In Idiopathy, people are sort of paralysed by their cynicism and they don’t feel they can change anything. Then at the end of Perfidious Albion, there’s a tentative move towards some sort of resistance or organisation. Then in the third one, I knew I really wanted to write about what it would mean to be really out there in a radical space. And at the same time, I had also had this idea ticking over for quite a long time for some kind of group that would embrace death and decay and pestilence as radical energies. I had been reading quite a bit about tantric history, that stuff, people like the Aghori in India who live in charnel grounds, so I knew there was something I could sort of do with that.

When did you write the book? I was curious whether it was all written before lockdown, just because there seem to be some weird resonances between the book and what’s been going on over the last year. Have you felt differently about the book over the last year with everything that’s happened?

I started writing it before Perfidious Albion came out. Then there was a bit of a delay when I had to do edits on Perfidious Albion. The bulk of it would’ve been written in 2018, 2019 and I remember quite vividly I sent out the final approved, proofread pdf the first week of lockdown, last year. In the book, the disease aspect is fairly metaphorical, but what I found interesting was, through lockdown last year, lots of the questions I was trying to press at in the book – do we like our life? Do we like going to work everyday? Do we like commuting? Do we like working in an office? What is the alternative to work? Can we imagine a life where we don’t have to conform in that way? – became actually very mainstream conversations.

Summer of last year, people were actually seriously talking about maybe never going back to the office again, maybe we could all have universal basic income. And I feel that sort of unravelled as time went on and that initial energy wasn’t sustained. But it was really interesting how mainstream suddenly some of those ideas became and I think it came out of quite genuine reflection. People I spoke to were really weighing up the time that they had at home or the time they spent commuting or the city they lived in. Profound questions about our way of life.

And there was an environmental aspect to that as well. The air was so clear! And also, in terms of inequality, we knew who was vulnerable in our society, we knew all the inequalities in our society already, but COVID really laid it bare. When you look at the pathways of Covid through overcrowded housing, poor people were much more likely to have bad outcomes with Covid. It exposed flaws in the benefits system. It exposed problems with precarious work. All sorts of things. So I feel like a lot of those ideas that I was trying to press at strangely became a real area of focus last year.

Perfidious Albion dropped in the middle of Brexit and became very topical at that moment. And this book almost seems to have become somewhat topical by accident, as you say. How important for you is it that a novel be topical in that sense?

I think it’s really important that we have people coming at it from both angles, if you know what I mean. I remember when I was working on Perfidious Albion there was a lot of discussion about topicality. People were saying, can we really have a political novel or does it just become a polemic? Now I think there’s a real emphasis on people wanting fiction which engages with the issues of the time. I think that’s very exciting. I think that’s people recognising that fiction has something to contribute to contemporary debate, which I believe it does. But that’s not to say I think every novel that comes out has to have some kind of contemporary peg to hang itself on.

I also think that one of the really nice things about the novel, as a form, when you’re working on a novel, is this completely different timeframe to anything else you do in your life. One of the things that’s nice about a novel is that someone has spent maybe three or four years thinking about these issues and working on it. And I think we need that too. We have a lot of immediate reaction in our lives, from the newspapers or social media or whatever. I think there’s a space for both. What’s important to me is that one way or another the novel is not divorced from contemporary life. It’s not its own hermetically sealed space. Contemporary life is making its way into the novel form – one way or another, either rapidly or slowly.

You’re quite active on Twitter. How does your relationship with social media interact with your writing. Do you ever find yourself writing with multiple windows open on your desktop – Word over here, and Twitter next to it, perhaps a YouTube video playing down there…

It’s a changing relationship. At the time I wrote Perfidious Albion, there was a lot of talk about writers having to shut the internet out in order to get any writing done. Jonathan Franzen had disabled the ethernet port on his laptop or something, like writers must not be infected by the net under any circumstances. I think part of the experiment of Perfidious Albion, quite consciously, was saying, what happens if you just let it all in? That’s an equally interesting question. Now, this book, I think, there was less of that because I was only working with one voice. It was always Maya’s voice. So I had to protect that a little bit.

I think social media now, for a writer, is interesting to get a snapshot of the collective unconscious at any given moment. It’s kind of messy and noisy and chaotic but there are still things that I read on social media that I can’t really find elsewhere. That’s really helpful to me and I find that really interesting. But when I’m actually writing, there’s nothing open. The internet doesn’t really work very well in my study so those things are quite separate. I look at Twitter a bit and then I do some work. But I like the jumble and chaos. I’m not looking at that space for some clear thread of argument to emerge. I like its chaos.

Were there ever any points as you were writing Come Join Our Disease when you felt envious of your characters?

Yeah, sure! It’s funny because I’m quite a – not a large-C Conservative person at all, but I like my daily life, my creature comforts. I’m not a particularly wild or rebellious person. But I definitely think there is something in Maya, when I was writing her, where I was a bit like, where is this coming from? I’m quite a clean freak as well, so, you know – yeah, I think all of that stuff was – I think it was the first novel where I felt like I was accessing something new inside myself, rather than looking out to the world for things I could represent. So it felt more exploratory, in that sense. That was exciting.

But there were a few times where I thought, what am I writing here? What are people going to make of this? By the time I was in the book’s back half and it was getting pretty decay-heavy, there were lots of times where I thought, is this what I want to do? Have I gone off on a tangent here that I now can’t find a way back from. But I trust the feeling, creatively, when you’re a bit worried about something. It’s something I always try and keep in the back of my mind. If you’re feeling uncomfortable, that’s often a sign to lean in to what you’re doing. It’s worth listening to because it tells you that you are – perhaps – hitting on something. That was what kept me going, because if it’s making me uncomfortable that’s probably interesting.

Perfidious Albion by Sam Byers is published by Faber

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