By Holly Downes
Sam Byers’ new novel, Come Join Our Disease, is definitely not one to be read by the faint of heart. Focalised through the rather troubled female protagonist, Maya, the reader is forced to accompany her on her journey of self-discovery. This journey is not plain-sailing, but rather one that requires making radical statements through grotesque rituals as she tries to resist the forces of capitalism and seek liberation. It is dark, compelling, and heartbreaking.
Let us start with a brief synopsis. After Maya has been homeless for nearly a year, she receives a proposal from Pict, a tech company. They offer her a place on a restoration programme where they sell her the dream: a steady income, a flat, and all expenses paid for in return for simply documenting her restoration journey on social media. They promise to give her ‘meaning and purpose’, and she readily accepts,.
Yet, as dreams are only ever fictional, this offer does not live up to its standards. Her job is to remove offensive images from social media, her flat is falling apart and the programme bombards her with intense wellness retreats and yoga classes to recover from the images. After inevitably growing sick of being a living ‘advert’ for Pict, she rebels against society’s need for restoration through transforming her social media handles into a platform of resistance. Following a feeling of liberation after posting her excrement online, she rebels against everything capitalism embodies – order, cleanliness and self-improvement.
With Byers dedicating three quarters of the novel to in-depth descriptions of several women rolling around in their own filth, he bashes consumerism and the ‘wellness’ industry in the most extreme way possible. They represent everything capitalism rejects, becoming economically unproductive beings who encourage society to ‘come join our disease’. Bombarded with vivid descriptions of their living conditions, all of which is coated in rotten food, bodily fluids and rat corpses, do not read this book if you are devouring a meal or are squeamish. Regrettably, I made that mistake – turning the page to be faced with a graphic account of excrement whilst eating some chocolate was not an experience I recommend.
Other than the sheer amount of grotesque commentary, the characters’ backgrounds interestingly remained untouched. All the reader learns is that Maya was homeless and is now being offered a way back into the system which she later rebels against. No family background, no information of how she became homeless – nothing. The same goes for her rather interesting counterpart, Zelma, whom the reader is given a rushed introduction to. Knowing near to nothing about the characters made it hard to empathise with them, as they became more like strangers than narratives you could become emotionally attached to.
Yet, I remained perplexed by the end of the novel as to what Maya and her friends truly represented. A form of radical anti-capitalist resistance? A physical manifestation of mental illness? A future glimpse as to what society would be if everyone was non-conformist? Although these representations do coincide, Byers never outrightly states which one is correct. Whilst it seems to bash the order of society, if you look at it from another angle, it seems to show how disordered we would become if we all strove for radical freedom. Yet, this is perhaps the ambiguity he wants – to let the reader figure out what the ‘disease’ truly is.
Safe to say, this novel is one I will never forget. Bombarded with grotesque descriptions, taboo topics and psychological insights into each character led me to finish three-quarters of it in one sitting. If you want to experience Byer’s power to trap you, to leave you rapidly turning the page for more, I cannot recommend it enough.
Image: Faber & Faber