Threshold, by Rob Doyle, Bloomsbury, 336 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1526607034
In his introduction to the Dalkey Archive’s anthology of Irish fiction The Other Irish Tradition (2018), Rob Doyle points out that, for quite some time, Irish writers have exhibited a penchant for what is now often referred to as experimental fiction. Tracing its legacy back to Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, which was written and serialised between 1759 and 1767, Doyle notes that Sterne is in many ways responsible for an outré tradition which has continued well into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Doyle argues that what some consider to be experimental fiction today ‑ epistolary novels, autofiction, metafiction, or poioumenon ‑ were relatively commonplace conceits when the novel was first finding its feet. He laments what he calls the standardisation, or “meat and two-veg” approach many contemporary writers ‑ and arguably their publishers ‑ favour.
To followers of Rob Doyle’s career, it shouldn’t really come as any surprise, then, that his latest novel, Threshold, is his most experimental yet. It is narrated by, and very much about, a presumably thinly veiled version of Irish writer and peripatetic gadabout Rob. Over the course of several years, the novel charts Rob’s experiences of teaching ESL in Sicily and Colombia, back-packing through Asia, chasing down the ghosts of his literary heroes in France and Spain, as well as his colourful relationships with women, and perhaps most notably, his own evolving relationship to his writing. The novel is comprised of eleven chapters, each of which effectively functions as a standalone work and traces a particular fascination or period in the narrator’s life. Several chapters had been previously published in The Dublin Review as early as 2015 as essays.
With Threshold, Doyle seems to have found a form that best accommodates the concerns which marked much of his previous writing ‑ psychic trauma, hedonism, nihilism, existentialism, and the fraught pursuit of intimacy. The novel, which is an assemblage of forms ‑ epistolary, memoir, travel writing, and literary criticism (and so, in reality, completely beyond such labels) ‑ sees Doyle move further away from “the meat and two-veg” of conventional fiction: plot, narrative arc and fictional characters and their development over time.
Devoid of a discernible plot, Threshold is heavily reliant on its narrator’s voice to do its heavy lifting, which it does remarkably well. Like many of his contemporaries who write autofiction ‑ writers like Geoff Dyer, Rachel Cusk, Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti, Joshua Cohen, Jenny Offil, and Karl Ove Knausgaard ‑ Doyle knows that if you’re going to be trapped inside someone’s head for three-hundred pages it better be an interesting place to be. The narrator’s ruminations are at times profound, melancholy, neurotic, and hilarious, but always intimate and engaging. They also highlight a humorous side to Doyle’s writing that his first two books didn’t showcase.
Although some of the book is set in Dublin, and parts of it in far-flung places such as Latin America or Asia, much of it revolves around Rob’s experiences of living in Paris and Berlin. Imagine a Down and Out in Paris and London for the twenty-first century, except that all of the kitchens and flophouses have become nightclubs and galleries and the immigrant dishwashers and angry chefs have been replaced with vagabond writers and stoned conceptual artists. While he is evidently at home in such places ‑ because if home is nowhere, home, in a sense, can be anywhere ‑ Rob is not an uncritical observer of them. When he is called a prude by a friend for second-guessing whether or not he should have pissed in a stranger’s mouth ‑ after having been effectively begged to do so by said stranger ‑ in the depths of the Berghain (one of Berlin’s most infamous techno clubs) one New Year’s Eve, Rob dwells on the issue a lot longer than most of the people he surrounds himself with would be likely to. Reader, if we are to have a hero who pisses in peoples’ mouths, it is best to have one who will ruminate, as fully as possible, on the significance of such an event ‑ which Rob reliably does.
What is perhaps most impressive about Threshold is how a book which jumps around so much in time, space and subject hangs together so well. Each chapter is preceded by a letter addressed to an unknown but implied recipient. The letters function as a clever framing device and lend an air of continuity to the book. It is through the letters ‑ which are deeply intimate, knowing, and humorous ‑ that the narrator lays out the terms for the book and in a sense creates its form, teaching you how to read it. In one of the earlier the letters, the narrator writes:
If I am ‘either writing myself into a novel or writing myself out of one,’ as you seem to be doing (will these visions overlap?), a question arises: how much effort should I put into rendering myself a ‘sympathetic character’? Am I one of those? To you, say? While we’re on the subject, let’s define our terms. For my purposes, a novel is simply a long chunk of prose in which whatever is said to have happened may or may not have happened, even if the author doesn’t bother to change his own name, but changes the names of others, or invents these others wholesale. In short, a novel is anything I tell it to be. By the same token, whatever I point at and call novel, is novel ‑ even if it looks like memoir, travelogue or naked confession. This is an old argument, endlessly renewed. It doesn’t matter ‑ it’s something to read. The idea, like I told you in that weird café in Hackney, is to write a book whose binding tissue is not overt narrative but obsessions, fascinations, places I can’t move on from till I’ve written them out, visions of my life as it is or might have been. The narrative is what becomes of the consciousness that passes through all this experience and through which all this experience passes.
The narrator ‑ and by extension the author ‑ are both obsessed with pushing self-awareness as a subject to its limits. Their consciousness pours over into every aspect of the novel. Obsessed with the threadbare line separating art from life, Doyle is at his best when he finds himself in situations where the distinction between the two no longer holds. While there are many proxies and setups for this idea throughout the novel, a trip to conceptual artist Tino Sehgal’s retrospective in Berlin provides Rob with ample fodder to unpack his thoughts on the meaningless distinction between life and art.
At other times, he is almost completely unable to resist the impulse to begin transfiguring his own life into art. Sitting down to eat at a restaurant in Paris with a new group of friends, Rob contemplates scrapping the book he has been working on to begin another novel about “sex, death, and clubbing in Post-Bataclan Paris” (earlier on in the novel, he is writing a novel which he hopes will one day be the “the great Berlin techno novel”; before that, in Sicily, he was writing “the great backpacker dropout novel”).
Towards the end of the book, when asked by a friend whether he is living a certain way simply so that he might write about it, Rob replies that he “… had long since solved the problem of authenticity, of making existence adhere to itself. I might have told her that my life was research for the book I was writing about my life, and that this book, which was many books, would justify that life.” The friend smiles sadly and concurs that “writing was a symptom of the sickness for which it was also the cure.”
Reading Threshold, one gets the impression of a writer who has found his voice and is at the height of his narrative powers. In eschewing the usual fiction-writer’s toolkit, Doyle has conceded nothing, and yet managed to achieve, in a much more concentrated fashion, everything that his writing has thus far been about. Threshold marks a departure in Doyle’s writing about which we should all be excited. Like Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Threshold is a welcome and daring reminder of just how omnivorous and vital the novel can be.