Edmundsbury, the fictional, sketchily rendered town in which the action of this novel takes place, is part of a social experiment — its inhabitants lab rats for a digital overhaul that goes beyond surveillance. Everything they do is measured, tracked and recorded in exchange for treats, such as heightened security and increased download speeds.
Sam Byers focuses on a handful of characters who are aware, to varying degrees, that something is badly wrong. Displaced Londoner Robert is a journalist with fading ethics, striving for ‘clickbait gold’, but needled to distraction by a persistently critical below-the-line commenter calling herself Julia. Quickly we discover that Julia is a persona adopted by Robert’s girlfriend, Jess. A juicy conceit: Jess can undermine and outwit her boyfriend under a different guise, and then console him (or not) in person afterwards.
Aliases and false fronts are everywhere. Byers uses them not only to thicken the plot, but also to establish stand-ins for real world figures. Among near-matches for Tim Ferriss and Tommy Robinson, it is Hugo Bennington who is lavished with the most authorly attention. A member of a political party called England Always, Hugo is an enemy’s impression of Nigel Farage, perky in the pub or greasy spoon but with a ‘slowly corroding interior’, ‘diseased’ by ‘fears’ of failure and irrelevance.
Heroes in Edmundsbury are harder to find, but Trina, who works at Green — one of the shady organisations behind Edmundsbury’s transformation — comes closest. Her private life is untypical: she lives in a three-way partnership, with a child, and has a history of mutual violence with a previous boyfriend. You can almost hear Byers sheathing his satirical blade in these passages: we mustn’t laugh at Trina. Provoked by one of Hugo Bennington’s TV appearances, she tweets ‘#whitemalegenocide’ and the ‘frothing attack dogs of the Twittersphere’ are unleashed. This isn’t the first time the threat of Twitter is over-emphasised — in fact, much of the tension of the novel depends on it.
Perfidious Albion is off-kilter in another important way. The title promises a state of the nation novel. Byers’s prose goes further, suggesting our green and pleasant land hasn’t merely separated from the EU but floated across the ocean and slotted itself somewhere between Delaware and Connecticut. His characters say: ‘That is totally noted and admired, OK, guys’; and ‘you really drank the Kool-Aid’; and, numbingly, ‘I know, right?’ People are found ‘half-watching a television show on the couch’. A keen Twitter user himself, Byers is eye-deep in the word soup of social media, which has an American accent, leaves a stain on speech and writing and is obsessed by procrastinating novelists and politicians everywhere.