:: Article

Hysterical Realism: A review of Perfidious Albion by Sam Byers

By Jon Doyle.

Perfidious Albion

Sam Byers, Perfidious Albion (Faber, 2018)

Writing upon the release of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, critic and author James Wood described the crystallisation of a new literary movement—something he labelled ‘hysterical realism’—that he saw as working in opposition to realistic and humane fiction. Smith’s novel, he opined, was merely the latest in a growing trend triggered by Pynchon and DeLillo, fiction that tried to appear real on the surface yet betrayed its artifice through the rapid and voluminous accumulation of unlikely details. Taken individually, Wood argued that these details could not be said to be outside the realms of possibility, yet as a whole coalesce into a form in no way comparable to our existence, and one which fails to engage the emotional complexity of reality.

The conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted, and overworked. Appropriately, then, objections are not made at the level of verisimilitude, but at the level of morality: this style of writing is not to be faulted because it lacks reality—the usual charge against botched realism—but because it seems evasive of reality while borrowing from realism itself. It is not a cock-up, but a cover-up.

For Wood, himself an author of a particularly conservative brand of realism, these novels are inhuman in the literal sense, surrendering character and personal depth in favour of a manic synthesis of information. The worlds of Smith, DeLillo and Pynchon are merely gigantic curio shops populated by impatient humanoids, each scene, event and plot overshadowed by the next before any convincingly emotional response can be registered. Aristotle was right, Wood asserts, in saying “a convincing impossibility” is always better and more believable than “an unconvincing possibility.”

But this raises a question, likely the very one that the accused authors were trying to answer all along. What happens when reality itself begins to resemble an unconvincing possibility of its own? After all, as Smith wrote in her rebuttal of the criticism, “these are hysterical times.” Only the period wasn’t as hysterical as we might have thought. Or rather, we severely underestimated how hysterical reality could get. White Teeth arrived before 9/11, before smart phones, before the internet became something we occasionally unplug from rather than occasionally plug in to. Before wristwatches began counting your pulse and measuring your sleep and delivering messages from brands 24/7. Before VR became an actual thing. The pre-millennium informational overload of TV and print seems quaint in comparison to the reality we now experience, where, defamiliarised, the most literal description of an average lunch break can end up sounding like a scene from an eighties sci-fi flick.

Perfidious Albion, the second novel from Sam Byers, is hysterical fiction for this truly hysterical age—where the exhaustion and overworking of the conventions of realism now form a key part of realism’s very definition. The novel is set in the fictional town of Edmundsbury, notable only for the fact that it is not London, amidst a post-Brexit climate that looks a lot like the pre-Brexit one. Far-right populist parties are a key part of mainstream cultural discourse, further-right skinheads are a visible presence on the streets, and large corporations spread their insidious tentacles into the very fabric of society, willing to strangle any would-be resisters still naïve enough to think the hatchet of personal protest will be enough to ward off the suckers. Edmundsbury might be an imaginary setting within a speculative future, but you would be hard pressed to realise it.

While united in the narrative, the characters are drawn from the breadth of the socio-political spectrum. Blogger Robert finds himself making the all-too-easy slide from left-wing concern to right-wing bombast, all the while becoming increasingly removed from his partner Jess, a researcher who develops alternative personas in cyberspace. Nigel Farage analogue Hugo Bennington plumps up his constituency in preparation for the inevitable by-election, writing incendiary stories for a major newspaper, stories read by the likes of Darkin, an elderly resident of a housing estate trying to withstand pressure to vacate his home in the face of planned redevelopment. Then there’s Trina, the ambitious employee working her way through the ranks of tech company Green, and Deepa, a web-addicted hypochondriac who listens to accidental ASMR videos all day. This is not to mention hyper-productive wellness guru and sludge drinker Teddy, paranoid office boss Norbiton, and One and Zero, the owners of an anonymous internet café who use their binary names interchangeably.  

Wood would likely find this hysterical enough, though things are made infinitely more complicated by the internet. What really links these characters, aside from living in Edmundsbury, is the possession of digital personas and secrets. Both Green and Downton are involved in clandestine operations of dubious ethical value, and Bennington’s political scheming is caught up not only in this corporate conflict of interests but also within the fringes of the Right, his entire public façade a delicate balance between endorsement and disapproval intended to maximise voting potential. Robert, who starts out with the intentions to report critically and fairly on the plight of the soon-to-be gentrified Larchwood housing estate, finds himself drawn to increasingly bigoted and unethical positions in the name of sensation and career progression. Jess and her digital personas may or may not be linked to several mysteriously reclusive thinkers and commentators, including one who Robert idolises and another who represents his nemesis figure. At home, Jess and Robert act as though nothing is wrong, as if they are merely two normal people in a normal moment, the growing chasm between them remaining invisible if only they can forget their outside, their online, lives.

Only, separating the digital from the ‘real’ is made all the more difficult by the emergence of The Griefers, a group bearing rubber masks and a vague sense of danger, perhaps terrorists or anarchists or merely artists fresh out of school. They stage a video at the town square, displaying a series of suggestive and possibly indecent images along with the slogan What Don’t You Want To Share? People in the crowd recognise themselves or relatives among the footage, and soon the group have a website that indicates cyber-blackmail, promising to release the entire digital history of an Edmundsbury resident unless someone volunteers for the same fate. The threat adds a tension to the relationship of Robert and Jess, a ticking clock they must race to get ahead of their worst secrets, though the situation is merely a concentrated version of that faced by every resident of the town.

The important thing about The Griefers’ threat is that none of the material they plan to release was recorded without the victim’s consent. There are no fraudulent scams or voyeuristic cameras, only the seizing of data already available online. Which isn’t to say the people of Edmundsbury are any more comfortable about it. Maybe less comfortable, the threat bringing into relief the prevalent delusion that online behaviour is somehow separate from offline (AKA ‘real’) life. ‘Digital dualism’, the idea that “on and offline are separate,” has been labelled obsolete by social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson, who instead argues that both “enmesh into an augmented reality” that forms contemporary life. Whatever their true aims, The Griefers emphasize Jurgenson’s argument. A person is who they are online, no matter how far removed that persona might seem from their corporeal selves. Consequences can and will follow just as they would in the physical world. 

Which works both ways. Bennington, for example, gets to shed the anxiety-laden wreck of his physical body and become the energetic, effervescent straight talker of his manicured image. Though Robert, who at first holds severe misgivings about his boss’ journalistic philosophy of maximising readership over all else (“Like, dislike,” he tells Robert, responding to concerns about attention-grabbing abuse in the comments of his articles, “what’s the difference?”), finds his own morals stretched and ultimately broken in the quest to advance his career. Like when writing a profile on The Larchwood’s Darkin, a piece intended as a portrayal of the working-class struggle that ends up more a lament for the now-lost rights of white men. Aware that the article is not right, but struggling to locate the correct angle to fix it, Robert sends a draft to his boss, only for him to love the work and publish it with no further editing. Unsurprisingly, the piece is picked up by the right, as well as more extreme anti-PC and men’s right groups, generating an unprecedented level of traffic to the website and making Robert an unlikely figurehead in their bigoted crusade. Robert’s discomfort grows, though is simultaneously eclipsed by a second, more pressing emotion—the love of the limelight and an intense desire to stay beneath its warm glare. “The knowledge that people were reading what he’d written,” Byers writes, “relating to what he’d written, was uncomfortable, but not as uncomfortable as the idea of people failing to read it at all.” Which brings the situation into stark relief: If Robert wants to be read, to be someone, then he must be a sensation.

So, when the storm of Robert’s article is superseded by a tweet from Green-employee Trina (“#whitemalegenocide lol,” triggered by a television interview with Bennington), he is presented with a clear decision between his moral beliefs and the relative importance of his voice within the cultural discourse. No one wants to read another tired virtue signal from the many-headed Saint Beta Male, and while to remain silent might allow non-male, non-white voices a chance to speak on what is surely their issue, remaining silent in this culture is akin to a kind of death. Logically, at least to Robert, he has only one course of action. Not only does he write the article with a more intentional focus on the so-called ‘plight’ of white men, he also works to engineer backlash to the piece to ensure its relevance and wider interest.

However, Robert falls for the fallacy of digital dualism, and in doing so highlights just where Wood’s criticism of ‘hysterical’ realism breaks down. Wood assumes that any extrapersonal information or events only serve to obscure the reality of a given character, but Byers strives to update the concept of realism for the digital age. The entirety of Robert’s transmogrification not only occurs online, outside of quote-unquote ‘reality’, but does so because of a multitude of voices, both his own and not, that coalesce into a shaping wind that erodes his character into the populist caricature it becomes. But, importantly, it is not merely Robert’s digital persona that is changed. The phenomenon is not exclusive to the digital world. The experience of abuse and support related to his writing alters Robert’s actual living person too, so that he starts to believe the very sensation he has created. He becomes his online persona. What began as a lazy, unedited stab at an article grows into an audience, an audience that demands more and more of the same, driving the corruption of Robert’s character from uneasy appreciation of attention into delusions of importance and finally genuine feelings of persecution (despite himself fabricating the most serious derision). Furthermore, it is not only Robert who experiences the physical changes due to his writing. The work plays a significant role in creating an increasingly hostile and fraught atmosphere amongst the general public that comes to a head near the end of the novel.

Far from nebulous abstractions, for Byers, ideas and opinions have effects and consequences. Thoughts, spread widely enough, can change the world. And now, thanks to the internet, they are spread with greater reach and immediacy than ever before. Context is stripped, as is intonation and intention. Irony is mistaken for sincerity and vice versa. The reader decides how to take any given information, and their interpretation can never be incorrect. Their interpretation is the information. Additionally, as communication is gamified into a competition of numbers, the feedback loop is closed. You simply give the readers what they want. If this new position is somehow easier or more personally fulfilling, as in Robert’s case where he can drop the constant analysis and resulting guilt of male privilege and exist within his own solipsistic view of the world, then all the better. The Alt-Right provides some of the most alarming examples of this. Andrew Marantz’s work for the New York Times on the neo-Nazi blogger Mike Peinovich is one such example, finding a man who allegedly started out as ironic joker but found himself dragged through the looking glass. Peinovich formed a sincere belief in ethic nationalism through an ‘accidental’ accumulation of a white supremacist audience (despite being born to liberal parents, married to a Jewish wife, and a descendant of a prominent figure in the movement to drive the Ku Klux Klan out of North Dakota). Just as for Byers’ Robert, this reversal is doubly attractive as not only does it allow a suspension of consideration for those less privileged, and thus a more comfortable life, it also offers a sense of importance and power with a specific community that would prove nigh-on impossible through regular journalism.

Byers suggests that if the dualism between on and offline has collapsed, so too has the dualism between true and false. Fake News and Alternative Facts may be presented as an invention of the Trump administration, but mass media is the true pioneer. And, in the same way, the solution is far deeper and more knotty than merely ignoring misinformation from nefarious governments in favour of the truth. Rather, fact and fiction blur, our world now a hyperreality where such distinctions have lost their meaning. In the closing scene, Jess and Deepa listen to an ASMR recording of rainfall, and the soundtrack merges with the sound of actual rain hitting the roof outside. The digital and physical have merged, the fictional and ‘real’ enmeshed as one. But then, such is life in the hysterical present.


Jon Doyle

Jon Doyle is currently working on his debut novel as part of a PhD in Creative Writing. His writing has appeared in Critique: Contemporary Review of Fiction and other places, and he runs the arts website Various Small Flames. Follow @Jon_Doyle.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, September 21st, 2018.