Hedonism, generational despair, cultural nihilism, suicidal ideations and moral collapse have formed the backbone of Rob Doyle’s personal life and attendant literary explorations since his accomplished debut Here Are the Young Men back in 2014. However, with Threshold, his latest novel, Doyle may be closing a chapter on himself or a version of himself.
“Underneath it all is this quite old fashioned quest for something transcendental, something sublime, profound and meaningful.”
I first tried magic mushrooms in my early twenties. I can’t remember the precise occasion, nor much about the trip, but it must have been pretty good or I wouldn’t have taken to them so enthusiastically afterwards. Before trying mushrooms, I had felt towards psychedelic substances the same sort of curiosity that drew me to philosophy, art and literature, particularly those varieties that trafficked in the mysterious, the sublime, the fantastical and the shocking. At the root of my interest in both drugs and art was the longing for an encounter with otherness, a seeking out of astonishment for its own sake.
It comes as a surprise to Rob Doyle when I mention how the dust jacket on his new novel Threshold, which boasts a translucent grey rectangle, reminds me of the sort of surface upon which lines could be racked up on or partaken from. He hadn’t looked at it this way until now. “It’s a mirror, a book about self, it’s a shimmering translucent kind of book with a kind of lysergic kind of quality to it. Why not have a mirror so the reader can perceive themselves – but by all means snort a line off it, I’d be more than honoured.” It’s the perfect accompaniment to the funhouse world of autofiction which he inhabits, a psychotropic sheen which illuminates and distorts.
“Threshold is a record of the search in many of the wrong places – and some of the right places – for some sort of sustenance and way to stay sane, alive, mirthful and even hopeful in the midst of all of the carnage and anguish and brutality of life. It goes into some dark places in my own life and psyche,” says Doyle on a crisp, sunny, morning in January.
His journey of discovery and enlightenment, aided by some drug consumption and experimentation, takes him around the world and is culled from Doyle’s extensive global travels upon completion of his Masters. He was, in the grand tradition of many travellers, a T.E.F.L. teacher-at-large. “I had lived-in experiences to draw from whether that was Buddhism or Ayahuasca and felt it would be a waste if I didn’t use them.”
Threshold also sees Doyle explore his relationship with, and affections for, the philosophical musings of writers who aided his artistic blossoming and framed the concerns which informed his development as a writer. In particular, the work of Romanian writer E.M. Cioran, the French intellectual Georges Bataille and leading South American literary figure Roberto Bolaño. He becomes a ‘cultural tourist” travelling to their home places, gazing from the street into places they once lived or inspecting plaques acknowledging their physical footprint in locations.
At 21 Rue de l’Odéon, we stood on the footpath and gazed up at the row of garret-level windows, wondering which one was Cioran’s, and whether we could get up there to see inside. A year earlier, I had come here and done exactly the same thing with my then girlfriend. Was I destined to return annually to the flat of a deceased Romanian nihilist and reflect upon yet another failed relationship. There were a lot of them, failed relationships, like burned-out tanks on the battlefield of my life.
“These were authors who influenced and derailed me when I was younger. The very journey creates a narrative framework in which it’s kind of not really about the plaque or even the writer. These are scaffoldings by which I think ok, I can go there. Every journey is a story. In using these authors, you can kind of riff and bounce off those guys to delve into whichever theme or concerns are driving you – really personal, ways for me to have a reckoning with myself and a self exploration.
“It is a book of pilgrimage and spiritual questing as profoundly unfashionable as that sounds. It takes place in the 21st century in this kind of switched on, post-everything era but underneath it all is this quite old fashioned quest for something transcendental, something sublime, profound and meaningful. The book is also a kind of leave taking, a eulogy to a certain phase of life and moving on from formative artistic and literary influences.”
Nowadays, Doyle spends his time between here (he is a teacher on the MA course in Creative Writing in the University of Limerick) and Berlin, a city which has invigorated as well as chewed up and spat out Rob Doyle, the person and persona.
“I didn’t move to Berlin until my mid-thirties. I had planned on doing so when I was 25 but after a week of carnage there I had this moment of clarity. I thought I don’t have the self-control at this point in my life to live here. If I do live here, I won’t get the novel I want to write written and so I’ll just destroy myself. I moved to a sleepy fishing town in Sicily instead and wrote a book there. And then, a decade later, I moved there and it was perfect. I can relish the fruits and go home and get the work done.”
‘So what are you currently writing about?’ asked Marc politely. Hew had a narrow beard and a shaved head and he was a DJ.
I extemporised about the sedimented psychic histories of Berlin, layers of memory and hallucination. What I didn’t mention was that, ever since we’d sat down at the table, I’d became fired up on the idea of writing about them – Linda and her stylish, not-so-young techno friends. Clubbers who were pushing into their forties seemed to me a milieu worth exploring, one that night illuminate a host of confluent themes that engaged me: what it meant, for instance, to age in twenty-first-century Europe, and the new kinds of family that emerged when the nuclear family blew itself up. Naturally, nightclubs teemed with sexy young things who could wear any ill-fitting, outlandish clothes and still look edgy and mesmeric. The techno kids danced with animal assurance because they knew the world was about them: they were the future and we – anyone over thirty – were already the past, sinking inexorably into it. Better to leave the gorgeous twenty-year-olds to their photogenic bliss: I would write about Linda and Marc and Thorsten, Julia and Katarina, and in writing about them I would be writing about myself, my own reckoning with the ancient headfuck of ageing, which was the dinosaur in the room of any club I danced at from here on in.
And so, his take on his home city (Doyle was born in Crumlin) having been largely in absentia from it carries all the flashing amber lights of its time. “Dublin has become unpalatably corporate, a rich person’s city… I find it becoming a very bland silicon city and that annoys me, because it seemed there for a while that everyone saw through the fraudulence of the status quo, the money culture and all of that bullshit. Suddenly you had this explosion of cool art and music. It is still happening in the rap and hip-hop scene, but it is slowing down because of the corporate tentacles of Dublin and Silicon Fucklands. That said, just for physical beauty there is no city quite like Dublin when I walk around it, that strikes home to me and I find it inspiring.”
At the heart of Doyle’s writings are romanticised notions of the writer when one strips away the anguish and the fuck-ups. This consideration has been observed by another friend of his who is a writer also and while it amuses him, he finds an echo of truth also.
“I’m fairly old fashioned when it comes to art and literature. I do believe in the idea of going all in and consecrating one’s life to art and literature and putting yourself in a reckless and absolute manner to these timeless adventures. And, hopefully, contributing in some small part to it in the process and even self-destructing.
“Bolaño has a description of literature about a samurai who goes out fighting monsters knowing he will be defeated but goes out anyway. At one level you could rip the piss out of that and say what a load of self-aggrandising bullshit but at another level it’s beautiful.” Doyle is prepared to continue fighting those monsters whilst shielding himself with a stronger suit of armour. And while the samurai’s armour is made up of many small parts and a variety of materials, Doyle has forged his own protection from the materials of a life lived.
Threshold by Rob Doyle is published by Bloomsbury Circus, €18
Words: Michael McDermott
Photo: Al Higgins