“Idiopathy” by Sam Byers

“Idiopathy” by Sam Byers  (2013) – 310 pages

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The tag line on the cover of “Idiopathy” describes it as  ‘a novel of love, narcissism, and ailing cattle’.

“Idiopathy” gets off to a strong start. The early scenes between the cruel Katherine and the thoroughly unlikable Keith are some of the best in the novel.  Sam Byers puts some of his most ironic observations about relations among the young crowd in their twenties today in the first pages.

I remember having high expectations for “Idiopathy” early on.  Byers has a sharp incisive wit, and he handles dialogue well.

Here is Daniel telling his ex-girlfriend Katherine about his new girlfriend Angelica.

 Daniel:: “She’s nice.”

Katherine: “Nice.”

Daniel:“I like nice.”

Katherine: “Of course you do.”

Daniel: “Not everyone equates difficulty with passion, you know.”

Katherine: “Of course not.”

Daniel: “Anyway, what about you?”

Katherine: “I’m off men.”

Daniel: “Were you ever on them?”

Katherine: “That’s one of those statements that initially sounds snappy and witty, but which, when you pick around at it, actually turns out not to mean anything.”

The trouble with “Idiopathy” for me is that the novel tries to accomplish two goals that are contradictory.  The first goal is to have a dark mean satirical commentary on modern dating and mating habits, the sort of thing Evelyn Waugh or Kingsley Amis might have done.  The second goal is to create a moving story involving characters that a reader can actually care about.  It’s the old quandary for a writer – how can you be mean and loveable at the same time?

A couple of the main characters, in particular Daniel and Nathan, seem to be watered down to me.    Daniel, as Katherine’s ex-lover, did not seem a worthy opponent for her.  Whereas Katherine was quite cutting and witty, Daniel seemed to be rather dull and slow.   Then there is Nathan who tried to kill himself before or at least severely harm himself, yet nothing is made of this in the novel whatsoever, and Nathan seems to only sit there or lay there throughout the novel.

The parts that dealt with environmentalism and modern eating habits seemed stale, old material.  It is about time satirists realized the real jokes are on the conservative side of things today.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. This reminds me of The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis, and also a novel shortlisted in the IFFP so forgettable that I can’t even remember its name…the problem about writing about vacuous people is that they are as boring to read about as they are to have in your life.

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    • Hi Lisa,
      I’m always looking for a reason to read a recent Martin Amis novel, but they never seem to get very good reviews. Yes, Amis novels seem to be in the same genre as Sam Byers, satires on modern life. I wish someone would write a biting satire on Rupert Murdoch. That might be fun. It might also be ruinous for the career of the writer who does it.

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      • Oh yes, self-censorship would take care of any venture like that.
        What’s encouraging is the emergence of independent media such as The Conversation http://theconversation.com/au which can thumb its nose at Murdoch et al, who knows what a return to real news might bring for society, eh?

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        • Hi Lisa,
          Fox News (owned by Murdoch) here in the United States is known as Fixed News or Faux News. It’s the Right-Wing propaganda network. Murdoch has done at least as much damage here as in England. Thanks for the Conversation site; I looked at it but will need to study it more carefully.

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          • We are at an interesting juncture with journalism: its corruption through the power of Murdoch fortunately coincides with the rise of the internet, and his reach is being curtailed because people – especially young people – just don’t read newspapers any more. Right at the time that he and his ilk are setting up paywalls, these other experiments in journalism are popping up. They need funding too, but not to make obscene profits, just to cover the costs of paying the journalists and enabling investigative journalism which tends to be long-term and expensive. So (for the future of the fourth estate) I have my fingers crossed that the internet revolution will stymie Murdoch & Co…

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            • Big questions nowadays whether the Internet will bring more freedom or more totalitarian control. And when I say freedom, I don’t mean more freedom for billionaires and their paid-lackey politicians to take away decent wages from the rest of us.

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