Sometimes the right novel arrives at just the right time. Perhaps the most spectacular instance of this in recent years was Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, with its tale of an American family ground in the gears of late-20th-century capitalism. Its publication date happened to fall ten days before 11 September 2001, and in the weeks and months after the attacks on the United States the book gained a shocking injection of resonance that it has retained in the years since. It is the business of artists to be alert to the kind of vibrations in the ether that can make their work seem eerily prescient; just this year Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion, a serious and funny novel addressing the legacy of second-wave feminism, rode the wave of #MeToo – although its author had, of course, been at work on it for years.
Sam Byers’s Perfidious Albion aspires to be one of those zeitgeisty tomes, and almost succeeds in its aim. In a sense it has more in common with Ali Smith’s Autumn, a direct response to our current political predicament often described as “the first post-Brexit” novel. Byers’s second novel (his first, Idiopathy, won the Betty Trask Award) appears two years after the European referendum and is set in the near future, in a Britain that has finally, absolutely broken free from the imagined shackles of the EU. A Ukippy party called England Always is gaining traction in the shires; print journalism is in trouble and committed cyclists change into Lycra before they pedal furiously home. So far, so familiar: not much prognosticating necessary.
Yet the real engines of Byers’s plot are the fate of a disintegrating housing estate, and the issue of who gets to control our digital data – all the traces we leave online. Perhaps the dreadful fire at Grenfell Tower had happened by the time Byers was doing his edits; but it’s quite possible that it had not. All the Facebook/Russia/Cambridge Analytica stuff? I’m pretty sure I had a proof of the book on my shelf by the time all that started to bleed through. That kind of thing can make reading Perfidious Albion a pretty spooky experience.
This is the Black Mirror school of storytelling: take what we know and give it a twist, so the familiar becomes the frightening. Management of the crumbling Larchwood housing estate has become a burden to Edmundsbury, Byers’s convincing version of a southern everytown; Downton – a name which shares its fabricated cosiness with a television series harking back to a fabricated vision of England – is the company that is going to step in, its plans to upgrade dependent on the creation of an Uber-like sharing economy.
At the edge of town squats the campus of Green, a tech behemoth with a finger in every pie; Trina James, a Green coder, is a cog in a wheel she doesn’t even know is turning. Researcher Jess Ellis and journalist Robert Townsend are lovers until their digital personae begin to take over their lives; and Hugo Bennington is a right-wing politician who thinks – like Farage – that he’s about to get dealt back into the game. In the midst of it all a group of masked interventionists called “The Griefers” appear, threatening to make everyone’s digital secrets public. The business of the plot is the gradual revelation of the sinister interlock of all these characters’ lives.
It’s a lot of material to juggle, for author as well as reader. The book zips along nicely and is full of satisfying zingers such as “You’re nobody until somebody hates you, Robert” and “an Englishman’s hard-drive is his castle”. Teddy – a flunky whose job is managing Hugo – lives entirely off a disgusting, yellow meal-replacement drink called “Fibuh” which is engineered to smell like chicken, and is proudly vocal about the function of his bowels as a result. Byers’s observations are sharp and mordantly funny. Hugo visits Larchwood, but not because he really wants to. “This was the grubby, undignified side of politics. To Hugo, politics was television, it was speeches, it was columns in sympathetic organs.” Voters know Hugo all too well.
Alas, the hectic pace squeezes the characters, which is where a novel must truly live. Trina is in a polyamorous relationship: handy for her author to make her a target of online hate, but the real dilemmas and joys of such an arrangement never come to life. Jess, too, like the online identities she creates in secret, has little more than a surface existence. A satirical sensibility can easily tip over into two-dimensionality. But Byers has a sharp sense of the way the wind is blowing; it’s a cold breeze indeed, and he directs it right down the reader’s neck.
Faber & Faber, 384pp, £15.99
This article appears in the 22 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special