As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Sam Byers on the research process behind his novel Come Join Our Disease (Faber & Faber, 2021).
In Come Join Our Disease, illness and uncleanliness become two methods by which your characters resist their assimilation into a society characterised by perfectionism, corporatism and authority. It is a type of refusal which is at once both anarchistic and nihilistic, destroying one’s relationship with society by destroying one’s own immediate environment. I’m curious to know what you think of the tension there between resistance and self-destruction, and whether that tension comes from a personal place.
I think the tension for me resides in the fact that in order for the kind of society you’re describing to function successfully, it needs to foster in its subjects a myth of both individuality and linear individual development. Or to put it another way, it needs to make sure that its own myth of progress is embodied and sustained at an individual level by people who see themselves as being on their own journey of achievement and growth. So in that sense it’s not so much ‘self-destruction’ I’m interested in as the question of whether, if the idea of the self or our reliance on a certain concept of the self were softened and opened to interrogation, the structures that rely on that concept might weaken in turn. So the refusal and resistance I’m imagining is more just an effort to dismantle the myth on an inner, personal level, rather than constantly exhausting oneself trying to tackle it at a systemic or societal level. But of course, you’re absolutely right that the line between destroying our reliance on the idea of the self, refusing all ideas of personal development and progress etc, and just flat out self-destruction is an extremely fine one. I suppose it’s personal just in the sense that I honestly think this tension is personal to everyone, even if not everyone articulates it in quite the same way.
I feel like some of the most pertinent comments the novel makes on modernity are around the ambiguous relationship between reality and artifice, and between private and public life. These two binaries are challenged simultaneously in your repeated references to social media, particularly Instagram, in which the lines between these concepts blur and refract. I’m keen to know how you handled this tension while working on Come Join Our Disease, and whether your view of this (and social media in general) changed while writing?
I think my relationship to reality in general has become more ambiguous, and I think that’s quite conscious on my part. I think Come Join Our Disease was the beginning of trying to loosen my own hold on certainty a bit, to explore in a relatively controlled way what that might feel like. I very much go back and forth on this because obviously new dynamics of reality and artifice are likely to be integral to most of our future experiences – just look at the way the battle to manage ‘disinformation’ on social media has spread so rapidly into an effort to determine who is and isn’t ‘real’. Sometimes I feel like what’s needed are new certainties – there is a lot of emphasis, for example, on being ‘in nature’ at the moment, or focusing on one’s body, as if these concrete and very immediate realities can act as a kind of immunisation against ambiguity and the anxiety it provokes. But then sometimes I feel like perhaps the opposite is necessary — to let go of certainty, stop clinging to it, and just become a lot more comfortable with its absence, my suspicion being that a lack of certainty is only unsettling if you’re looking for certainty. I think in terms of handling those tensions in writing, obviously a significant shift for me was moving into the first person. Both my previous novels were in third. First person was something I felt I needed to work up to precisely because of all those tensions. In some ways I think I needed to consider my own relationship to subjectivity before I felt able to write in the first person.
Tied to that theme of reality vs artifice, one manifestation of that tension comes through the performative empathy of several of the corporate characters within the novel. While I’m wary of the term ‘virtue signalling’ as one that inadequately tries to describe the phenomena it refers to, I’m curious to know whether you feel we’re living in an age of increased performative empathy, perhaps enabled by social media, or whether its roots run deeper in the human condition?
I think we’re living in an age in which performativity in general is hugely increased, and I absolutely think it’s largely social media that are to blame. I think people zero in on things like empathy, kindness, virtue etc as the most performative aspects because they seem like the most obviously hypocritical, but I don’t really think those qualities have been rendered performative in a way that, say, outrage, hostility, and fear have not. If everything is broadcast, everything becomes a performance. And if everything is a performance then everything must tend towards a degree of dramatic impact. For me the problem when those kinds of phenomena move out into the corporate sphere, so that brands and institutions feel under pressure to perform their kindness, their generosity, their political correctness or whatever, isn’t so much that I think it’s bullshit (although I do think it’s basically bullshit), it’s more the very basic fact of them pretending to be personalities at all. There has been a huge move towards personification in branding, advertising, corporate culture etc. Now when you buy a carton of orange juice it describes itself to you in first person on the packet. I’m organic. My packaging is disposable. Anything to avoid the impersonal. This I think is the deeper problem with what people call ‘brand-washing’. It’s encouraging a completely false sense of intimacy, and that sense of intimacy exists only so as to render us more susceptible to exploitation.
I’m also curious to know how you feel about the role of automation in our society. While Marx envisioned a world in which automation frees human beings for increased creative activity, the world of work portrayed in Come Join Our Disease points to a society in which an expectation has developed that we do not just offer our labour but our character, our sociability, our personhood. How do you feel about that, and again, might that come from a personal place?
I know this is in some ways heretical but I’m not persuaded that the increase in leisure time that will supposedly be the result of automation will lead directly to an increase in creative activity. My reason being: many people have a great amount of leisure time now, and they spend it on a numbing cycle of entertainment and outrage. I think there would be an increase in creative activity among people who feel drawn to creative endeavour, and I certainly think there would be an increase in the number of people exploring their creativity, simply because there would be some who had always had an interest. But it seems to me that there would also just be a huge increase in time spent being passively entertained. As to the changing expectations around work, I think this is pretty universal to be honest. There has been this very significant shift towards ‘culture’ in the workplace. There are positives to that — I like to think for example that there is more emphasis on treating people respectfully and fairly than might have been the case a generation ago — but I think there are also significant pressures. I think people feel a greater expectation than ever before to be their ‘best self’ at work — this kind of smiling, eager, unflappable beacon of positivity. I think the demand is excessive, and I think the pressure to meet that demand is unsustainable for the great majority of people.
Finally, I was struck while reading as to the similarities (and differences) between Maya and Zelma’s movement and the movement built by the male characters in Palahniuk’s Fight Club. The disaffection with corporatism that leads both sets of characters to withdraw from society, and to rebuild an experimental community in opposition to it, led me to a painful question: have we come nowhere? Palahniuk’s novel came out in 1996, and yet more than two decades later, the problem of extrication from a ‘soulless’ society appears more inescapable than ever. Do you feel like this a fair analysis? And if so, how do you manage the sense within you that we may be being ‘pulled inexorably and tidally towards the apocalypse’ (CJOD, p.90)?
I think there’s quite the apocalyptic turn in culture generally, at the moment, with people across the political spectrum all envisaging slightly different apocalypses and attaching to those apocalypses a slightly different set of fears. That may be a consequence of exactly what you’re describing — the feeling that many of the problems we’re facing now are problems we have known about for years; the sense that we’re stuck in some sort of loop. Perhaps in a way we dream of apocalypse. Perhaps it has come to seem like the only event that would really constitute a significant change. This is quite explicit in some commentary — the idea that there can be no reforming our way out of the mess, that scorched earth is the only possible approach. I certainly don’t feel especially optimistic about the present or near future but I suppose in some ways I also take a degree of comfort and reassurance from my sense that things are cyclical. There is a time for certain forces to be in ascendancy, then a time when those forces are on the wane. There is absolutely nothing in our world that lasts indefinitely. I like Susan Faludi’s concept of the spiral: there are always backlashes and counter-forces, but with each revolution we get a little closer to where we need to be.
Sam Byers is the author of Idiopathy (2013); Perfidious Albion (2018); and Come Join Our Disease (2021). His work has been translated into multiple languages and his writing has appeared in Granta, The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Times Literary Supplement.
Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.