• Sam Byers
  • Faber & Faber
  • 320 pp.
  • Reviewed by Liam Callanan
  • August 5, 2013

A scathing portrait of disaffected 30-something life in the 21st century that’s as much X-ray as it is mirror.

Few pleasures are sharper for a writer than the character who wanders into a manuscript unannounced, gives a quick look around and then sets about stealing every scene where he or she appears.

It’s a pleasure for readers, too, and in Sam Byers’s debut novel, Idiopathy, the pleasure is all due to Katherine, a 30-something woman in possession of a quick and merciless wit, a witless job (at a company that could easily be a Dunder Mifflin subsidiary), and an uneasy place in a not-quite love triangle involving her ex-boyfriend Daniel and ex-drug dealer Nathan.

But there’s a challenge that accompanies characters like Katherine, for writers and readers alike. Scene-stealers don’t always have the book’s best interests at heart; they’re best employed tearing things down rather than building anything up.

Byers himself seems to acknowledge as much when he lets the camera linger on Katherine during the lengthy scene that is the book’s climax: “Katherine plugged her smirk with her beer bottle, relieved at being able to express herself through her preferred medium of barbed cynicism and apparent flippancy. God save us, she thought, from the deep and meaningful.”

It’s tempting to say that this is Idiopathy’s central prayer, as Byers takes on a number of sacred cows — therapy, parenting, activism and, well, cows — and plays them for laughs. But by the end, it’s clear that the book is indeed after something deep and meaningful, a scathing portrait of disaffected 30-something life in the 21st century that’s as much X-ray as it is mirror. Younger than 30? Older? Happy in life? Not? It doesn’t matter: the affliction in Idiopathy (a medical term for an unknown disease that arises spontaneously) is meant to be a diagnosis for all of us. In the book, however, it’s explicitly a diagnosis for a succession of cows that fall into a trancelike state across the English countryside. Or, rather, it’s not a diagnosis, as the book explains. The label scientists give this condition, “Bovine Idiopathic Entrancement, far from a diagnosis, was coined as an admission of ignorance.”

Fair enough. We’re all easily entranced cows, given to reading much like Daniel’s new girlfriend, books called The Self-Help Habit: How to Put Down the Books and Get On with Your Life. But the conflation of cows and people, like the fake self-help book’s title, like the potshots the real book takes at family photographs in its opening pages (“ … ninety percent of photographs (and relatives) looked the same. One grinning child was like the next …”) feels too simple or obvious.

Cue Katherine, who is rarely either. Those initial observations about family photographs are lodged in her head, true, but she’s just getting started, and in short order tears through coworkers and lovers (and those who are both) with her pitiless tongue.

It’s a pity, then, that the book spends so much time in its characters’ heads. It’s not that their observations aren’t smart, or that the words themselves aren’t memorable, just that it sometimes takes awhile to get to what really matters. Here’s Nathan sitting at a greasy spoon, having just emerged from the muffled world of a mental hospital: “The winter sun was level with the roofs of the opposite buildings, allowing its light to stream uninterrupted through the glass door and broad window of the café, backlighting the three other patrons as they sat in relation to Nathan and causing him to squint and then blink rapidly whenever he looked up from the black hole of his coffee, leading in turn to the sensation that reality was a gauzy screen in which some nameless creature had chewed ragged holes.” Those last 14 words, from “reality” on? Lovely, unexpected, memorable, and if you use a pencil to underline what you love, you’ll find you need to sharpen it several times before you’re finished with this book. But the previous 67 words make for quite a march, and so do the first two-thirds of this book.

But eventually the three main characters find their way toward each other and spend a long evening talking — and, finally, yelling — about what drove them apart. It’s electric, funny and painful all at once, and when Byers then brings the entire cast on stage at the end in the manner of a Shakespearean comedy, it really does feel like a play (and it should be; I can’t imagine this book won’t be adapted for stage or screen).

And what of those poor possessed cows? Hard to say. One makes a comic cameo at the very end; apparently the entrancement is broken. But readers who manage to fall under the spell of this book may stay that way for a long time.

For my part, I was pleased to see that Katherine, who exits in the book’s final line, pointedly does not say good-bye.

Liam Callanan is the author of the novels The Cloud Atlas and All Saints. He lives and writes in Wisconsin and on the web at

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