Sam Byers – Perfidious Albion (Faber & Faber)
This novel has been out since 2018. I held back from reading it as I was writing something I thought might be close to it – I didn’t want to be influenced. As it turned out there was no need to worry, and the novel is surely even more essential as we begin the 2020s than it must have been in 2018.
The book opens at a party full of tossers – I do use the word lightly – who have decamped from London to somewhere fictional in East Anglia, to be tossers.
Here, the present is dead – ‘these are post-present times’. Here, without using the word, is postmodernism. The Latin ‘modo’ means now and so pomo means after-now, after the present. Byers manages to get all of this across without labouring it.
The people at the party mediate everything they do, moving out of London, walking in the countryside, they can’t do anything without turning it into a desperate, empty act of pseudo-psychogeography. They can’t, in fact, do anything that isn’t pseud.
For these mediasphere amphibians the distinction between hate clicks and like clicks has been erased by the simple and sheer desire for clicks. Therefore meaning is dead too – someone says that straight out at one point – and so here also is post-truth. This seems to confirm my hunch that pomo is shading into something much darker politically. Sam Byers seems to feel it too. Time seems to have stalled and we could go down the Mark Fisher cultural gravity hole here, but Perfidious Albion is funny, so let’s not. Later, perhaps.
Back at the tosser party, a fictional bunch of people called Rogue Statement collective have been nicknamed ‘the theory dudes’. They are very much like the real Everyday Analysis collective (EDA) who have quite a presence in Manchester. Rogue Statement collective find fascism everywhere. In iced buns, in socks. They’re a sort of neo-Frankfurt School for the post-Warhol age, and, obviously, they are all also tossers.
An artist works only in crayon and throws mud at walls. ‘To see if it sticks’ is magically written by not writing it at all: Byers pulls off a clear-cut communication with sublety and depth at the same time; he’s a great writer. Much of the weight is carried through light, economically-shaped details, ‘Jess popped to the toilet to tweet’, ‘I think your work may no longer be work.’
Byers sees his own gender and generation as tossers and can write them as such. Personally, I don’t think that’s a huge deal – it’s very obvious – but Byers’ sees women and can write them. Not many can. The friendship between Jess and Deepa is handled cleverly, again through details, they swap food and drinks, for instance. Jess, who poses online as multiple media activists, reads a sycophantic email from her own partner Robert to her alter-ego Byron Stroud. Her shock at seeing a layer of her intimate life that has been hidden from her is very well rendered.
Jess comes across Deepa when she is in a reverie that ‘is not to be shared’ and you know what it contains without being told. Deepa, quietly amused by the room full of tossers, in a corner of the room full of tossers, gives her a depth the others don’t have. You already know, in fact, these people. How shallow is our world when the silent and seeing, the quietly mirthful, are suddenly virtuous? I’ll say it again, Byers draws women well.
A guy turns up to attempt a guerilla reading. As I’ve just spent a year reading au plein air in Manchester I suddenly felt the prick of this book’s needles: this means this book is really good, not bad. Perhaps what pricks us overall is that Byers has got it right and we don’t like that.
I also contributed an article to the EDA website on behaving badly at supermarket checkouts. In my defense, it was humourous. I just looked to see if EDA are still going and surely yes, they are, the last post being ‘The Libidinal Economy and the General Election’. Take some Lyotard, smash it into what’s in front of you, then hang it online to dry. Trouble is, I then ran into the libidinal economy of the internet a few pages on in the novel, in a description of Deepa’s work in a private research institute.
Deepa has escaped Britain’s ‘failing, intellectually incapacitated universities.’ This book isn’t ‘neo-modern’ or ‘new sincerity’ – and not only because those literary-theoretical farts have barely any power in them – but because the return to meaning, belief and ‘real politics’ – the Corbynista dream – has not happened here and looks as though it never will. Prescient. Jess’s partner, Robert Townsend, with a rosy view of the working classes, defends a housing estate from predatory developers. But what he really defends and promotes is the image of himself caring about the estate, the working classes and their plight.
Gentrifiers binge on anti-gentrification articles, the sick tautologies of our time are mercilessly paraded before our hypocritical psyches. When I finally got around to reading Houellebecq properly, I realised that his popping of the European neoliberal bubble, with its roots in ‘the counterculture’ was accurate. But Houellebecq is also a tosser and a nasty one. I don’t think Byers is a tosser at all, but he skewers the shallow meniscus of the English neoliberal epoch very accurately too.
The tossers at the party the book opens with are all wanting, in a double sense, they are all full of nothing but lack, and they all desire something out of their reach. The trouble is, the reality that all of these people desperately want is already there. But you wouldn’t like that reality if you found it. If you’re deeply, abjectly poor with no way out, this whole world of authors writing about tossers talking to other tossers about bullshit means zero. That’s the world of the ‘real’ and ‘authentic’. You can’t go there on holiday, the only way you can go there at all is by making it so that you can never climb out again.
Byers tries to go there. In a decaying council estate flat a character called Alfred Darkin entrenches himself. There’s a parallel with Dickens, and Amis perhaps, just in the naming of this character. There’s a just-so ness to the descriptions here that some might object to. A lack of colour, a simplicity in the explanation of Darkin in his flat, reading the Faragesque Hugo Bennington in the Record newspaper. There’s the moment Robert Townsend enters Darkin’s flat to try to help him, and the smell that hits – fag smoke and urine – will raise leftwing sanctimony like Engels’ descriptions of Manchester as The City of Stink. Alfred Darkin automatically regurgitates the last rightwing newspaper article he has read and denies any counter-argument. Again, many will object.
Darkin’s world is black and white, it has little nuance, his wife was alive (white/light) and then gone (black/dark). We then step into Robert and Jess’s ‘educated middle class’ world and the tomato and chilli sauce is in vivid colour, their conversations are rainbows. But the infinite shades of nuance in early 21st c. living are becoming a hell here. Jess, once trolled and threatened with rape and violence, begins to secretly troll her own partner, Robert.
And so ultimately I don’t object, and I’m from a working class background. Darkin’s life may be the monochrome past and Jess and Robert’s the sleek psychedelic future, but their existence in an infinitely fluid, contextless drift is just a different hell to Darkin’s immobile, solid, heavy hades.
Trina, a character working in a department of the tech company Green, has found that becoming ‘permanent’, a secure employee, does not mean that at all. This is all of our hell. Even Hugo Bennington is flanked by a tosser and an arsehole. One is Teddy Handler, a lifehack guru the Green coders follow. Teddy Hunter makes spaceships out of Lego to help him brainstorm and he is a very convincing representative for our times. The more time you spent with Teddy the more ‘the border between the profound and the insufferably moronic began to feel dangerously porous.’
They all join up, the tech gurus love Teddy Handler’s ‘Teducationals’ and Hugo Bennington is compromised by his shares in the property firm who are trying to muscle council tenants out. Bennington then writes ‘for’ these oppressed left-behind working classes. The moment the fascists are out on the streets is genuinely chilling. Beyond Black Mirror.
This book is in a tradition and it is an important contribution to that lineage. One can move back in time from Amis to Dickens and then to Fielden and Smollett. Byers’ clear-cut communication can become cartoon, it is true. The private housing company, trying to displace tenants from the estate – including Alfred Darkin – is called Downton. But Byers’ strength here is going for the most loaded signifier. He has written a very sharp eighteenth century satire wearing the mask of the digital age. I will go so far as to claim that Byers diagnoses most humans at this point in history when he describes two tech guys as ‘weirdly eggbound and clenched with an anger they couldn’t name.’
Darkin’s interior monologue may be cut from cardboard, but the dreary monologues of false consciousness – and I don’t use that term lightly – are one dimensional. Deepa though, Deepa is just a little bit deeper. Byers’ whole picture is perhaps best judged when nearly everyone in it – of whatever social class – has been jig-sawn out of plywood, gaudily painted and propped up in a dead, wild west town. The queasy horror that the consumers of the Downton television fantasy are its victims, both historically and in terms of its immediate, energy-sapping illusion, comes to us just through this choosing of names. Names that initially appear rashly chosen. It’s a very unbeat use of ‘first thought best thought’, but it works. Somehow, just through this detail, the whole fucked-up plateau we live on, with its euromillions jackpot and One Show, with its pretentious, preening narcissists with MAs, is illuminated in a glamourless lightning flash. A sad little platform only precariously aloof from the merciless sea. How very real. How very now.
But actually, 2018, the year the book was published, at the pelting pace of politics today, is ages ago. Boris wasn’t in Number Ten when this book came out, but it seems to know he will be. If there is a parallel for Teddy Handler, it is surely Dominic Cummings.
I can’t give you an overview of how all of what I have described pans out, that would be way too big a spoiler. But this is an essential novel of historical record and future orientation.
– Steve Hanson