Where Are We Going?

MacKenzie Warren reviews Sam Byers’ Perfidious Albion

This is the second part of a two-part essay on the British state-of-the-nation novel in its less conventional forms. The first part, The first part discusses Tony White’s The Fountain in the Forest.
Sam Byers, Perfidious Albion
Sam Byers, Perfidious Albion.
Faber & Faber. £15.99.
Buy direct from the publisher.

If a state-of-the-nation novel is at risk of being outdated on the day of publication, there’s at least one way for a writer to avoid calamity. They could write a novel that doesn’t quite take place in the here and now, in the nation of today — a novel set in the future, but only marginally and perhaps only nominally. Looked at one way, this sort of novel might be read as a commentary on the state a nation is heading towards, a critique of the path it is already on. From another angle, though, it might be very much about the present because it illuminates one of the most deceptive aspects of the present: the illusion that a nation is heading towards a future which is in fact already here, and has been for some time.

Sam Byers’ Perfidious Albion is set very soon, but not just yet, at some nebulous moment in the weeks and months ahead: after the British referendum to leave the European Union, but before the day of departure and not (it seems) at any point in the past. That said, it’s a novel that wants to put its finger so firmly on the pulse of contemporary life that it seizes the zeitgeist by the jugular and throttles it. That this is its ambition, and that Byers is aware of the difficulties of writing a state-of-the-nation novel with such a twisted timeline, is clear from the first page. Perfidious Albion opens with a cocktail party discussion between two men, both involved in daily journalism, as they pinpoint the impossibility of writing the present. The first man says that his attitude towards his own writing is “like, if it’s not now, I’m not interested. You know?” The second man concurs: “Who wants to write something that’s already yesterday?” But the first man despairs at ever being able truly to break free: “What isn’t yesterday these days?” he asks. The second man, void of principles and positions to defend, takes a moment “to ponder just how much was yesterday right now” and observes: “These are post-present times.” Even by the most generous measure, that’s a nonsensical statement, but Perfidious Albion sets out to make it make sense — sort of.

How does it do this? Firstly by taking a plethora of conditions that define the digitally mediated national and civic life of Britain today, and then by consolidating them into a highly localised network of activities. The uncanny result is a survey of the state of the nation that seems slightly futuristic on page one but then, by the end, seems to have been ripped straight from this morning’s newspapers: the future retracts into the present during the course of the reading. I’m writing this review in the same week that three separate scandals have attracted mainstream coverage after pitchforks and torches came out on social media. In the last few days, Ryanair staff have penalised the victim of a racist diatribe on a flight from Spain to the UK, the CEO of the plague-ridden Persimmon Homes has evaded scrutiny of his publicly-funded £75 million annual bonus, and the chief of staff to David Davis, the former Brexit Secretary, has taken to Twitter to insult a hospitalised child he’d never met, calling the boy a “pathetic cretin” for supporting the campaign for a public referendum on the government’s Brexit deal. In retrospect, then, it’s hard to see a clear delineation between the reality of these stories and the pages of Perfidious Albion.

Among the novel’s many targets — for scrutiny, for satire, for a combination of both — are big tech and the faux machismo of tech bros, the local privatisation of public utilities, citizen journalism, microtasking, the gig economy, the sharing economy, the fad for “life-hacking”, TED Talks, the growth of social credit systems, dick pics used as revenge porn, out-of-context tweets that go viral, trolling, dogpiling, doxing, machine learning, the antics of Anonymous, the EDL, and, of course, public outrage over issues of identity politics. There’s a key character modelled on Nigel Farage and others reminiscent of Jordan Peterson and Elon Musk. Reading the book requires a good degree of familiarity with the charlatans, buffoons, and nefarious powers whose crimes and misadventures make the daily headlines. The only hot-button personalities who escape Byers’ gaze are the incels.

Even though it is set in the fictional town of Edmundsbury — the sort of place that fed-up Londoners flock to when they’re priced out of the capital — Perfidious Albion is panoramic in scope and features a wide cast of characters. As its omniscient narrator flits from person to person, the novel takes its time to allow connections to crystallise, and then, halfway through, an explosive incident galvanises the core players and kicks the plot into high gear.

At the centre of the action is Trina, a lower-middle-level supervisor of gig workers for a Googlesque tech company called Green. Green is involved somehow with an opaque government contractor called Downton — think Serco, G4S, or Carillion with a veneer of friendly nostalgia pilfered from Downton Abbey — and Downton’s major project in Edmundsbury is the redevelopment of a council housing estate called Larchwood. Most of the residents of Larchwood have been coerced into leaving; Trina is one of the few to cling on, along with an incapacitated elderly widower named Darkin. Darkin, for his part, is the stereotypical Brexit voter: white, nationalistic, instinctually conservative, yet heavily dependent on state services decimated by austerity, and therefore persuaded by the right-wing press to train his ire on immigrants and minority ethnic groups in general. Trina is black and makes a comment, publicly, that brings her into conflict with Darkin. Between the two of them, and exploiting both of them for his own political gain, is the Farage simulacrum Hugo Bennington, who makes it his mission to defend “the Darkins of the world” even though he is in cahoots with Downton to evict Darkin from the Larchwood estate.

There’s more, much more, orbiting around all of this. There’s the earnest community reporter Robert, who has been covering events on the estate. There’s his girlfriend, Jess, who surreptitiously undermines his work using a variety of fake online identities. And there are the activists known as the Griefers, who combine political protest with performance art when they threaten to publicly release the digital secrets of the people of Edmundsbury. It’s a breathtaking experience to watch Byers set all these plates spinning and maintain the momentum for several hundred pages, and it’s breathtaking in both senses of the word — equal parts exhilarating and flat-out exhausting.

Byers is at his best when he is at his most merciless, when he has a clear subject to skewer and he takes palpable pleasure in the prose that sharpens the blade. Often, he uses the narrative voice to give details on characters who are streamlined into caricatures: their more human qualities are simplified while their idiosyncrasies are exaggerated to grotesque effect. Here, for example, is Byers’ introduction to Hugo Bennington’s political advisor and media pointman Teddy. As man whose defining characteristic is a fetishisation of efficiency and productivity in the Apple, Inc. sense of those terms — a man who claims that “Choice is unproductive” and whose “tanned skin [speaks] not of invigorating outdoor activity but of expensive indoor labour” — Teddy times his periodical intake of nutrition “to the minute”, relying exclusively on one type of meal that can’t be eaten so much as imbibed:

For approximately a year, Teddy had consumed no solid food whatsoever. Instead, his diet was composed entirely of a semi-liquid, neon-yellow goo called Fibuh, which he consumed four times a day at carefully scheduled intervals and which he claimed was scientifically calibrated to provide an even more rounded meal than the average rounded meal. Fibuh had been invented by a seventeen-year-old chemistry genius so socially awkward that he was unable to eat in the school canteen and so in need of remedial life-skills training that he was unable to prepare a sandwich. He’d therefore devoted his life to the design, production, and marketing of a product that eliminated both of those horrors and which also, conveniently, made him a millionaire. He claimed he was going to live to be two hundred years old because he was achieving optimum nutrition. A series of nutritionists claimed that as a result of never allowing his body to process solid food he’d be colostomised by forty.

Teddy took a long haul on his flask and came away with his upper lip painted bright yellow.

“Mmm,” he said, with a slightly uneasy satisfaction. “Yeah.”

Hugo Bennington, meanwhile, eats almost nothing but artery-clogging pub fare which torments him as it both taxes his metabolism and enhances his public image:

The problem was that as well as being a perpetual font of youthful vigour, Hugo also had to remind potential supporters that he was just like everyone else. He was, according to his own personal branding, the man in the street. More importantly, he was the man in the pub. If he ever failed at being the man in the pub, was the fear, men in the put would stop being impressed by him. This put pressure on Hugo’s photo opportunities. The second [his advisor] got wind of a photographer, he parked Hugo behind a full English, or jammed a fag between his fingers, or hastily pulled him a pint of ale, even if it was barely ten in the morning.

The result was that Hugo’s perky exterior was grossly at odds with his slowly corroding interior. Regardless of the glow in his cheeks, his campaign was killing him from the inside.

And here’s an early description of a self-professed public intellectual in the mode of Alain de Botton, who turns out to be a man as misogynistic as he is gloriously egotistical:

After a progressively unsuccessful intellectual career based entirely on scathingly dismantling the work of his peers, Groves had reinvented himself as an international man of feeling. His most recent book was an alphabetically arranged series of micro-essays on things that made him cry. Having ‘done’ tears he was now ‘doing’ laughter, and had published a series of ‘provocations’ about the importance of humour in the face of oppression and good grace in the face of injustice. His Twitter feed was a carefully curated gallery of nauseating bromides like, It’s not always what we feel that’s important; it’s the very fact that we feel at all. Dumbstruck by his own capacity for emotion, he spoke at all times as if he were the first man on earth to experience a feeling. Apparently affirming his delusions, people huddled round him at parties and used him as a litmus test for what they should be feeling themselves.

At other times, rather than relying on narrative voice for satirical effect, Byers allows the dialogue to unspool so quickly that characters end up with enough rope to hang themselves:

Norbiton stuck his head round his office door.

“You three,” he said. “I’m calling a huddle. Right here. Right now.”

“You can’t,” said Bream. “You used your huddle quota this morning. Your allocation won’t reset for another twenty-four hours.”

“Are you kidding me?” said Norbiton. “Trina: confirm.”

“It’s twenty-four hours,” said Trina.

“Email me,” said Bream.

“Copy that,” said Holt.

“OK,” said Norbiton, “I’m going to play ball, but if I get a load of auto-responses I have to say a touch of negativity might start creeping into my day.”

Norbiton went back into his office and started pounding his keyboard. Trina logged on and fired up her email to find that Norbiton had sent a high-priority scheduling invite to her, Bream, and Holt.

“I didn’t have time to turn off my auto-response,” said Trina.

“Me neither,” said Bream, not making any sort of move towards his desk. Holt just shrugged. From inside Norbiton’s office a sort of war-cry went up. He came back out of his office and marched up to them.

“You lot are so fucked,” he bellowed. “Do you even know how fucked you are? You are beyond fucked. You are quad-core, ten gig of ram, retina-display, twenty-hour battery life fucked. Bream: my office.”

“No can do,” said Bream.

“No can do? What do you mean no can do?”

“I used up all my Meeting Minutes at the huddle this morning and just now when I had to take time out to explain to you how huddles work. I can’t do any kind of meeting now until next week.”

“Then why in the name of fuckery did you tell me to email you to arrange a huddle tomorrow?” screamed Norbiton.

“So I could respond by email to let you know I am out of Meeting Minutes and could we maybe do next week,” said Bream.

Much of Perfidious Albion reads like this, with dialogue in which sparks fly as snarky zingers strike against droll repetition, and Byers, taking his cues from Tigger, bounces around manically from storyline to storyline, from debacle to full-blown cataclysm. Occasionally the technique is grating, and the dialogue can be as well, but mostly it is full of zest and infused with a propulsive energy that makes the novel difficult to put down.

If all of this sounds something like Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods (2011), there’s no doubt that Lightning Rods is the clearest forebear of Perfidious Albion. In his ridicule of insincere corporate speech and exploitative social interactions, and in his reverse application of mercantile logic to people’s private lives and societal affairs, Byers is every bit as sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued as DeWitt, especially when he eviscerates everyday racism just as meticulously as DeWitt eviscerates sexism in the workplace. David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King (2011) seems to have been something of a model for Perfidious Albion, too, and perhaps, more recently, the corporate absurdities of Megan Dunn’s Tinderbox (2017). Still, its outlook is very, very English — because Edmundsbury itself is so very, very English — and finally it’s difficult to read the novel as something that can be easily extricated from The Fountain in the Forest. These two books are Janus-faced: the one looking back seriously but serenely at the events that have brought Britain to its current malaise, the other looking slightly ahead at the already germinating consequences of the nation’s half-distracted, half-distressed response to its malaise.

Fittingly, Perfidious Albion ends with these words, including the absence of a full stop:

Error 404: The page you are looking for does not yet exist

For a while, too, those words served as a placeholder ending for this essay. I copied them down and left them at the bottom of the final page as a reminder to myself to use them as a sort of yardstick: to see how high the tides of calamity might rise in the time between my final reading of the novel and my completion of these thoughts, to see how much of the sheer entertainment value of Perfidious Albion would be subsumed by the growing horror of things that did not yet exist when I started writing about it.

Now it’s midday on Wednesday, October 24, 2018. Last Saturday, 700,000 people flooded the streets of London in protest against the disastrous Brexit deal currently being “negotiated” by the Conservative government. Neither the Prime Minister nor the Opposition Leader were present, nor were they even in the city at the time, nor have they publicly commented on the event. Theresa May thought it more important to visit a community art exhibition in her constituency, which included a painting that depicts her “carrying a cross over a river of bad Brexit headlines”. Jeremy Corbyn thought it was an opportune moment to discuss human rights in Geneva. On Sunday, Nick Clegg, former Deputy Prime Minister, announced that he has taken on a role as a “global lobbyist” for Facebook. On Monday, the House of Commons condemned the discourse of its own as-yet-unidentified members who used the language of murder and execution to describe the fate awaiting Theresa May. On Tuesday, it was reported that — in an unprecedented move for Britain during peacetime — the government is “drawing up plans to charter ships to bring in food and medicines in the event of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit”, and to legally requisition privately owned ships, “in a move greeted with disbelief at a stormy meeting of Theresa May’s cabinet”. But it’s too late, apparently. Only this morning, the National Audit Office reported that Britain has passed the point of no return on its preparations for the collapse of Brexit negotiations, meaning, in effect, that civil unrest is on the agenda for next March if Britain doesn’t either revoke Article 50 or capitulate to the demands of the European Union.

Perfidious Albion isn’t about any of these events, nor does it make a dated attempt at predicting them. But there’s a cultural madness at play in this country, which has buoyed such events from a zero probability just three years ago to rock-solid reality today, and the energy of that same madness courses through the events of Perfidious Albion like a madcap clown through a harlequinade. With what can only be described as malevolent zaniness, a spritely slapstick comedy of domestic fascism, the novel performs something that purports to be tomorrow’s news — but is actually today’s news without the reportorial waffle that blunts its edges. It has no solutions to offer, and no comfort either, except maybe the comfort of realising that in a culture going insane, everyone suffers the insanity equally. Whether that’s enough to give it validity beyond today — or at least March 29 next year — will probably take a decade to determine. But since Britain seems poised right now to spend a decade in cultural and political stagnation, a novel that captures the times as precisely as Perfidious Albion may well be the novel that best reflects the times to come.

About MacKenzie Warren

MacKenzie Warren read English at Oriel College, Oxford. She now lives in Bristol where she works as a freelance copywriter and social policy advisor for the local authority.