Reviewed by Dan Lipscombe
Sam Byers is a wonderfully talented author. His imagination and wordplay seemingly know no bounds. However, when you want to talk about excrement, particularly in detail, only one word will suffice – shit. I’d love to know how many times this word appears in Byers’ latest novel Come Join Our Disease. It must be a lot. This is mostly because the central character of Maya goes from an initial obsession with her shit and how it is seen as something to be hidden, to literally wallowing in her shit. And other people’s shit. Poo just wouldn’t have the same effect. It would lose gravitas. The word ‘shit’ feels right for this story; a commentary on the appearances of those who use social media. Byers likes a good social commentary; his previous book took on Brexit, this one takes on social media and how we present ourselves to the world. We hide our shit.
I was reading this book in the park on a sunny day – I’d just finished reading a passage where Maya urinated on an already soiled mattress where she slept – and a friend nudged me and asked what the book was about. My answer was “A kind of scatological slant on social media”. They grimaced and didn’t ask anything further. The thing is, beneath the shit, piss, vomit and menstrual blood is a wry, funny and smart look at modern society. A novel which asks “why can I show you my detox smoothie on Instagram, but not talk about the monumental shits it produces?”. Because a civilised society doesn’t discuss the ugly parts of life. We don’t compare toilet trips or show our mates photos of our bodily waste. Much like many look away when they see a homeless person or avoid images of self-harm scars.
But how did we get to Maya pissing herself? In an abandoned warehouse. The story starts by showing the reader Maya, currently homeless. The police arrive, everybody scatters and Maya is scooped up and offered an opportunity by a mysterious business. They will provide a home, a job and some basic modern technology for free; all she has to do is chronicle her change of life on Instagram. It’s Maya’s journey.
After about 80-100 pages, the novel loses any sense of plot in the formal sense. There’s no shadowy government controlling Maya; no tale of good vs evil. The book places Maya in a doctor’s office after a heavy detox weekend supplied by her new job, where she looks at disgusting and degrading images on the internet all day and must choose which are allowed to stay online and which are too abhorrent. In the waiting room, Maya meets Zelma, and they quickly become friends.
It’s with Zelma that Maya absconds from her new life. They find an abandoned warehouse on an industrial estate and start revelling in filth. Instead of posting twee cushions and inspirational messages on the ‘Gram, Maya is posting pictures of her shit; her scars; her body. All those bits we hide.
It’s perhaps too late in the review to give a word of warning – there are sections of this book that will turn even a strong stomach. Because it is meant to. Byers is shaking us by the collar and yelling that the modern world has two realities – the one you live and the one you post online. The latter is frothy lattes with a double shot of espresso; the former is the crippling diarrhoea you get two hours later. The author is intending to shock, but to what end? Nobody will read this and suddenly start posting images of their bodily waste online, right?
But if we spin it a different way, Byers is simply showing the reader what already exists around them. What we already know, but rarely challenge. Substitute pictures of shit for discussing depression; or spousal abuse; or anorexia. It’s the ugly, painful side of life which is only discussed behind closed doors. And only when it is shown – in high definition – do people take notice. Byers has to show you a group of women (as Maya and Zelma are joined by others after online support) eating mouldy food from puddles of excrement mixing with vomit to get you to take notice. He is asking you, ‘what does it take?’
Interestingly, this is a male author writing a very strictly female perspective. Being a male reader, I can’t comment on how well Byers achieves this, but it feels authentic. He touches on sexual harassment and how women are portrayed in the media and forced to slot into a cookie cutter shape. He looks at how women are treated for just being themselves on an ordinary street, being called a slag for not conforming to rules set by men.
Come Join Our Disease is a raucous and disgusting book. It pulls no punches. It is in turns endearing, hilarious, and heart-breaking. Yes, it carries a social message about the world, but it also looks at how friendships are forged and how we treat each other. This novel should catapult Byers into the echelons of great writers. Read it, consume it and revel in the shit.
Dan is an author and video games reviewer and blogs at Utterbiblio.
Sam Byers, Come Join Our Disease (Faber & Faber, 2021). 978-0571360086, 354 pp., hardback.
BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)