Sam Byers’s worryingly zeitgeisty second novel, Perfidious Albion, imagined a post-Brexit dystopia dominated by global tech companies, corrupt spin doctors, shady think tanks and the corporate manipulation of government. So far so true — were it not for the current pandemic, one might call him a soothsayer. His third, aptly titled novel, Come Join Our Disease, dispenses with the crystal ball and instead explores the fear that the internet, despite its boons, is making us all ill. The pestilence, in this instance, is virtual.
Byers’s heroine is Maya, a homeless woman once ‘peripherally employed’ in the tech world, now staying in a geographically indeterminate encampment. When JCBs arrive to clear the rough sleepers to make way for development, Maya is arrested and taken to a ‘featureless office complex’ and coerced by her handlers, Ryan and Seth, into a performative rehabilitation, the centrepiece of which is her Instagram account, Maya’s Journey. ‘The aim,’ they tell her, is to ‘humanise the homeless… People wanted a singular arc, an outcome attached to a face, a narrative of measurable change with which they could engage.’
Maya is eased back into society with a job at an arcane tech solutions company, Pict, where she has to vet imagery on the dark net for ‘inappropriate content’, as well as daily updating Maya’s Journey with inspiring culinary photos: ‘Breakfast… had become a sort of ritualised offering to the Instagram gods… salads that looked like they’d been assembled one leaf at a time.’ When Maya suffers the inevitable ‘image toxicity’, she’s taken to the ‘sanitised seclusion’ of a yoga retreat, where she rails against the ‘distinctly bovine’ task of chewing kale and the relentlessly positive narrativising of her own experiences.
It’s this toxic reaction to wellness culture that sees Maya joining forces with Zelma,a chronic pain sufferer she meets in a doctor’s surgery. Together they become allies in subversion, working on a ‘project of resistance’. They start an Instagram feed called Come Join our Disease (#cjod) which they fill with their own extreme images (many scatological) and form a women-only commune dedicated to social disruption.
If the measured elegance of Byers’s prose often seems at odds with the novel’s descriptions of bodily functions (certain paragraphs relating to Maya’s bowels will never be unread), then maybe this reinforces the book’s message. Only fearless, discordant acts of resistance will ever be effective against the airbrushed hegemony of social media participation and global corporate players who control it (and, by extension, Byers argues, us). Come Join Our Disease is a manifesto for those who refuse to join the sinister dance of tech-platformed positivity and its imperative to keep up, to compete, to always succeed.
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