What a Novel Could Be: Rob Doyle Interviewed by Tadhg Hoey

The writer on finding the form for his latest book and the appeal of the wandering psyche.

Doyle Threshold2

I first interviewed Rob Doyle back in 2014, shortly after the release of his acclaimed debut novel, Here Are The Young Men. Since then, Doyle has produced a collection of short stories, This Is The Ritual, and edited an anthology of experimental Irish fiction for the Dalkey Archive Press entitled The Other Irish Tradition. His latest novel, Threshold (Bloomsbury), follows a vagabond writer named Rob on his seemingly endless journey towards new pastures. Equal parts epistolary novel, memoir, literary criticism, and travel writing, Threshold traces several years in the narrator’s life as he undertakes literary pilgrimages in France and Spain, participates in ayahuasca ceremonies in South America, and immerses himself in the underground techno and art scenes of Berlin and Paris. The novel, which as the narrator points out, is many novels, serves as a welcome reminder of how expansive the form can be. I caught up with Rob on a wintry afternoon in Dublin ahead of the book’s publication.

—Tadhg Hoey

Tadhg HoeySome of the chapters of Threshold were published in The Dublin Review as essays in 2015. Did you know they were going to be part of a larger work?

Rob DoyleFairly early on, I knew that these ostensibly standalone sections were part of a bigger book that was going to grapple with pretty much everything that has obsessed or preoccupied me over this period of my life. The first chapter is about magic mushrooms, and I wrote it in the autumn of 2014, not long after my first book was published. I knew I had hacked into a personal, essayistic, yet potentially fictional mode—a new mode of transmuting the raw materials of lived experience into prose—and I knew it was going to occupy the next few years. It still took a while because the book had to find its form.

THWas receiving feedback for those published pieces helpful?

RDKind of. It was a bit more mercenary in that I would think, Okay, I see how this particular experience, or fascination with a place, or with a writer like Roberto Bolaño or E.M. Cioran, or with a psychedelic substance like DMT or magic mushrooms, was something that I could really write into deeply. Sometimes just for some money, and other times just to get the ball rolling with a certain piece, I would pitch it somewhere, mostly to Brendan Barrington at The Dublin Review.

THAt what point did the book start to become, what Rob— the narrator of the novel—calls “the great Berlin techno novel” or a novel about “sex, death, and clubbing in post-Bataclan Paris”?

RD(laughter) I didn’t worry too much about labels. Like, am I writing a novel? Or am I writing autobiography? Or am I writing a travel book? Or a book about philosophy? I didn’t worry about that because I knew I was onto something. The only real concern was that I wanted to write a book that was compelling, immersive, and intimate to the reader. But about halfway through, it became clear to me that I was just writing a book about life. I wasn’t writing a book with some plot mechanism that could be summed up in an elevator pitch. I was writing a book about the things that mean the most to me—desire, death, sex, loneliness, love, the beyond, metaphysics, literature, art, writing itself. Halfway through, I realized I had found a form that was capacious, digressive, meandering, and free-wheeling enough to bring together everything I wanted to talk about. All without recourse to the artificial structure of dramatizing emotional configurations through interpersonal dynamics. I just wasn’t interested in doing that.

THThat’s what I felt reading this. It’s kind of mainlining the concerns of your earlier books.

RDI’m so glad you said that. I think it comes back to that Milan Kundera line from The Art of the Novel. He says every novelist should strive to find a form through which they don’t have to stray, for even a sentence, from that which fascinates them. Had I tried to write another book like Here Are The Young Men with plot extrapolations and so forth, the very endeavor of fashioning characters as fiction would have involved straying from the core, the concentrated essence of what interests me. With this book I got to have my cake and eat it too. It’s got lots of atmosphere, a strong sense of place, it’s very sensual, it’s very sunny, but it’s also full of the philosophical, personal—and to use an unfashionable word—existential concerns that animated the prior books.

THIn theory, a book like this shouldn’t come together. When I think about how varied the book is, how often it jumps around in place, I realize that there could be no other form—other than the one you had to create—to contain it.

RD(laughter) Yeah! I knew that if each chapter could essentially function as a standalone narrative that traced the arc of a particular obsession or fascination, then the book would have a certain cohesion. The other thing is the consciousness of the narrator, which is obviously some fractal version of my own consciousness. I wagered, I hope successfully, that the sense of sustained intimacy with the consciousness of the narrator—i.e. the author, because it’s a book being written in real time—would draw the reader in and provide that page-turning sustenance that maybe a plot, in another novel, might provide.

THThere are three chapters in which Rob goes in search of his literary idols—E.M. Cioran, Roberto Bolaño, and Georges Bataille. What was the idea behind these chapters?

RDI enjoy writing about other writers, and it’s happened a few times that a certain writer will grip me in a fascination that can only be relieved by writing it out of my system. With Cioran, this was absolutely the case. Cioran’s savage, bitterly funny aphorisms about nihilism and civilizational decline really colonized my brain for a few years. So, I thought I’d write a book about him. At first it was shaping up to be some sort of lame historical novel about his life in Paris. Then I thought I’d write a frenetic and reckless critical study of his work. But in the end, I just wrote an account of my journey to Paris in the winter of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, when I tried to research Cioran’s life against this backdrop of menace and tension. It becomes a story about my failure to write the book in question, which turns out to be a means of confronting Cioran’s malevolent sway over me. I enjoy how the immediacy of this sort of narrative quest, along with the traveling it entails, allows you to condense a great deal of insight, emotion, humor and atmosphere into a distilled space.

In the case of Bolaño and Bataille, they were more about narrativizing past fascinations, in that I wrote them after the peak of my engagement with those authors had already elapsed. Writing about Bataille was a means to reflect on the troubled, chaotic, destructive guy I was in my early twenties, when Bataille’s writings on ecstasy and excess spoke to me. But those chapters were also a chance simply to wander around Europe, describing or imagining encounters, reflecting on the longings and ideas that then preoccupied me. In this sense, the authors are a pretext to wander, to focus on my deepest concerns. There’s a degree of, That’s enough about Bolaño, let’s talk about me.

THIn other novels like this, like those by Geoff Dyer, Ben Lerner, Rachel Cusk, or W.G. Sebald, a lot of the praise, or criticism, boils down to the voice.

RDExactly. If you get the voice right—at least in this kind of fiction which is very explicitly suggesting itself to be autobiographical—you can more or less trust in that to guide you through. This book is all about voice. The themes it explores are quite intense, but the voice is humorous, playful, light. It’s quite a self-aware and even self-deprecating book.

Rob Doyle Credit John Minihan

Photo of Rob Doyle by John Minihan.

THEven “the great Berlin techno novel” and “sex death and clubbing in post-Bataclan Paris” are, I believe, italicized or placed within quotation marks within the novel. It’s aware of those labels.

RDSelf-awareness is almost a character in the book—as is a kind of literary self-awareness. It’s been done before: a book that explicitly narrativizes its own process of being created through the author’s ruminations on it. I wanted to write a book that would appeal 100% to a reader who resembled me. It’s the kind of book I wanted to read. And such books do exist—many of them written by the people you mentioned.

THIf we put Lerner, Cusk, Sebald—their kind of novel which ostensibly has a plot—on the one hand, and Dyer’s novels, which seem much less concerned with plot on the other hand, then Threshold seems to sit somewhere in the middle. It has a novelistic framing device in the form of the one-sided letters that set up each of the chapters.

RDThat device was a kind of breakthrough that came quite late in the whole thing. It wasn’t always there, and I feel that before it was there, there was something lacking. I had all of this other material that I had amassed which I saw as a separate book, or just for the future, and when I moved to Berlin, I just thought, Well, wait a minute. What happens if I channel all of these thoughts, conversations, and arguments I’ve had over the past few years—mostly with women writers, mostly about literature—into Threshold? Many of the things that were preoccupying me could be explored via that device: the one-sided correspondence, where the other side is implied but you never get to read it. It also gave me a convenient means of playing with and dictating the terms of the form that the book would take as I was writing it. It became a laboratory for my own evolving ideas about what a novel is, could, or should be. This novel, then, is my modest attempt, my personal answer to the question of what a novel ought to be—as presumably every novelist wants to do.

Traditionally, a lot of novelists start out with a semi-autobiographical novel and go more and more into full-fledged imaginative fiction in their subsequent work. I feel that I went the other way. I started off semi-autobiographical with Here Are The Young Men, then went deeper into the autobiographical. Rather than building up an imaginative artifice around me, I wondered, What happens when I melt away the distinction between literature and life? Some of the stories in This Is The Ritual were completely going in this direction. They were semi-essays—literary essays, personal essays mixed with narrative. Lots of overt autobiography. There was always a Rob Doyle character coming in and out. So, it was really a matter of just going further, stripping it away more.

THOne of the obsessions of the book is the dissolution of the line between “real-life” and art. Particularly in the chapter where the narrator goes to Tino Sehgal’s retrospective, or with the Kurdish artist in the book, Nesrin. At one point, after Rob arrives in Berlin, and he’s sitting down to dinner with a group of friends, he thinks to himself, fuck the old novel I’ve been writing, this is what I’m going to write about.

RDWhat I hoped I achieved with the book is a blurring, or melting away, of this separation. Hopefully, with this book, reality bleeds so much into the novel, and the novel bleeds so much out into reality, that the distinction no longer holds. Literature is just another psychic emanation, a dimension of lived experience, and vice versa. There’s a line in it where he’s asked if he’s only living a certain way so that he can write about it, and he says that he has “long since solved the problem of authenticity, of making existence adhere to itself.” He says “my life was the research for the book I was writing about my life, and this book, which was many books, would justify that life.” There’s a little personal manifesto in there. In the idea that, somehow, your life and your writing are just two sides of the same coin.

THAnd the form completely acknowledges that. It strips away the artifice from the things which novelists generally have to do.

RDSomething has happened to me where I’ve basically lost the ability or the interest in looking for that kind of make-believe. I tend not to read that many fictional novels any more where you’re expected at the outset to make this pact of belief in an unreal world. I mean, there’s still a place for it, and I still read some of it, but what I read for more often is simply intimacy with another consciousness. Like, if I read Bolaño, who is a traditional novelist in that he writes novels with plots, it’s not the story I’m interested in, but the intoxicating sense of intimacy with the mind and the imagination of Bolaño. So, when people read Threshold, I’d like to think that what they’ll enjoy is that same sense of intimacy and communion, that direct connection with the psyche that produced the work as that psyche wanders through the world, drinking in sensation, being traumatized by this, being inspired by that. I’m particularly drawn to autobiographical forms of writing, even if they play with fictional tropes, because they offer a more immediate communion with that consciousness.

THIn the final letter, which precedes the final and eponymous chapter, “Threshold,” which is about DMT, there’s a little bit of a mission statement.

RDI’m a mission statement kind of a guy (laughter).

THThe narrator, Rob, says that he wants to write a book which is “…a celebration of elsewhere, of life played out anywhere except the place where you happen to be from…” It was quite an affirmation, a synthesis of what this book is about.

RD The great thing about writing this kind of book was that it put a certain stamp of permanence and sublimated worth onto the transient and curious life I’ve lived. Even before I became a writer, I was drifting around the world, checking places out. To me, it’s very natural to get as far away as possible from Dublin, or wherever one happens to be from. There’s always a kind of inherent sadness to wandering. It’s like you’re watching a film go by and it all can feel transient and ephemeral, which it is. But when you write about it, you capture something of the essence of the places you’ve passed through, the people you’ve encountered, and the personal evolution that goes on while you’re drifting through that world.

Threshold is available for purchase here.

Tadhg Hoey is a writer based in Dublin. His writing has appeared in BOMB, The Dublin Review of Books, Headstuff, and The Irish Times.

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