The narrator of Rob Doyle’s second novel is an Irish writer who regards his native country as “a backwater of banal, misshapen people”, and believes he must move abroad in order to flourish. He exiles himself to continental Europe, where he works as an English teacher and divides his spare time between recreational drug binges and the posthumous stalking of various influential 20th-century authors. In Paris he visits the graves of Samuel Beckett and Emil Cioran, and the haunts of André Breton and Georges Bataille; he views Arthur Schopenhauer’s homes in Gdansk and Frankfurt, and has an underwhelming encounter with Roberto Bolaño’s former landlord on the Costa Brava in Spain. His girlfriend observes that these excursions resemble a kind of secular pilgrimage: you can take the boy out of Ireland, but the habits of religiosity die hard.
Structured like a travelogue interspersed with epistolary fragments, Threshold is an autobiographical novel reminiscent of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station. The story of the book’s gestation is incorporated into its narrative, which is composed of a series of discrete anecdotes, liberally embellished with the author’s directionless cogitations. There are some colourful tales of debauchery – including, most memorably, a water-sports session in a Berlin sex club (“I pissed long and hot in his abject face… ‘Danke!’ he rasped.”) – but the plot is secondary. This is signposted early on, when the narrator tells a friend about his desire “to write a book whose binding tissue is not overt narrative but obsessions, fascinations, places I can’t move on from… The narrative is what becomes of the consciousness that passes through all this experience and through which all this experience passes.”
Inviting a stranger to come and live inside your head for some 350 pages is a risk: if you don’t keep them entertained, they may end up resenting the experience. There is, unfortunately, a rather dreary quality to much of Doyle’s psychic patter, which is littered with trite aperçus. These include musings on weather (“Was it perhaps the coldness of the sea that gave life in Ireland its harsh and sullen quality?”) and disquisitions on the attractiveness of French and Italian women (“they run neck and neck… in a two-horse race to be Europe’s most gorgeous people”). The narrator’s self-indulgent ruminations on his waning virility are similarly tedious – think Michel Houellebecq minus the laughs:
I was hooking myself on a drug that would one day run out, and when it did my anguish would be final and absolute. You fucked until you could fuck no more, at which point you were really fucked.
Attending an art festival in Germany, Doyle’s narrator is nonplussed by the proselytising nature of the works on show. “Essentially,” he explains, “I accept the world as it is… Politics engages me purely as an aesthetic phenomenon.” The mannered turn of phrase doesn’t quite convince. One gets the sense Doyle is trying a little too hard to emulate the European literary bad boys of the last century – men like Knut Hamsun and Louis-Ferdinand Céline, whose misanthropic airs and reactionary politics have a transgressive allure for the wannabe enfant terrible. Too serious – or perhaps too precious – to engage with the world, the narrator cocoons himself in narcotics. At one point he overdoses on ketamine while watching news footage of the Iraq War:
There was no war, no music, no coherent mind to grasp such concepts. There was pure existence, and this immanence was me, I was the cosmos moving through an event of sublime magnitude.
Here, in the erasure of a vast human tragedy by a squalid drug experience, is the logical end-point of all this studied nihilism – a dead end of vacuous solipsism.
Doyle’s 2016 short story collection, This Is the Ritual, portrayed several earnest young writers of a similarly zealous bent to Threshold’s narrator. There the prose was lean, the storytelling arch and witty, but this time, unshackled from the constraints of conventional narrative, Doyle runs away with himself and leaves the reader behind.
On this evidence the jury is out as to whether loitering in the vicinity of once-literary bones will enable you, via some necromantic osmosis, to become a better or more interesting writer. Threshold’s sprawling listlessness is probably best enjoyed as deadpan satire – a cautionary tale of dissipation and drift; a masterclass in what not to do.
Houman Barekat is co-editor of “The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online” (OR Books)
Bloomsbury Circus, 336pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 22 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power to the people