‘To live and die without knowing the psychedelic experience,’ says the narrator of Threshold, ‘is comparable to never having encountered literature or traveled to another continent.’ Magic mushrooms in Dublin, opioids in Thailand and San Francisco, hallucinogenic cactus in Bolivia and Peru, ketamine in India: he encounters terror, near-death and ecstasy by every means available — including Ecstasy. This is no glimpse through the doors of perception; it’s a free fall down the rabbit-hole to Wonderland. Or hell, depending on how the trip goes.
Rob Doyle’s first novel, Here Are the Young Men, was a savage picture of a bunch of Dublin losers on their school-leaving summer: a bildungsroman with booze, drugs and murder on the agenda. Critical praise and award nominations followed. Now comes Threshold. Memoir? Travelogue? Auto-fiction? Doyle says it’s a novel.
In self-contained chapters, the book follows the peregrinations of the narrator, ‘Rob’, who at 16 realizes that ‘work, as it was generally experienced by people of my working-class background… was to be avoided’. Better to cast off ‘cosmic serfdom’ for a life worth wasting. So is Rob on a Rake’s or a Pilgrim’s Progress?
There’s a lot of alcohol, and sex — sometimes celebratory, occasionally rough: masturbating in squalid rooms; idyllic coupling on Asian beaches; a Berlin nightclub orgy described with darkly comic specificity. Thirtysomething, Rob is haunted by foreshadowings of aging, isolation and death; he honors friendship and is rewarded with loyalty. Drifting through the world, insouciantly sexist and self-critical, he heads for famous historic sites, only to ignore them when he gets there. He views his attitude as ‘a Nietzschean aristocracy of spirit. But it’s possible I was just an arsehole.’
He delights in harpooning contemporary art, particularly ‘art not for art’s sake but…the alleviation of world suffering, the bolstering of democratic-egalitarian ideals…art indistinguishable from social work’. Frequently, seized by a new obsession — Buddhist meditation, say, or the works of Georges Bataille — just as he’s ready to write the deeply researched essay/novel/ blog, he loses interest. The perverse refusal to do the desired thing is reminiscent of Geoff Dyer, and Dyer fans will enjoy Doyle’s unforgiving humor and puncturing of pretensions, including his own.
He has written elsewhere of the Joycean idea of abandoning a place only to reconstruct it in fiction. Eternally seeking the elusive, the out-of-reach, he reflects in a Proustian moment: ‘You sign up for the melancholy of returning the moment you determine to undertake a journey.’ Luckily, there’s always another irresistible art show, another friend to get smashed with, another pointless journey to be relished. Not many books manage to expand your mind, do your head in and set you laughing out loud. This one does, and Doyle’s words sing on the page.
This article is in The Spectator’s April 2020 US edition.