this is the ritual, by Rob Doyle, Bloomsbury, 208 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1408865354
Judging books by covers – for in the heat of the bookstore we do this – Bloomsbury’s paperback edition of Rob Doyle’s short story collection, this is the ritual, is an attractive book indeed. The prospective consumer is presented with a “grippy”, textural front cover that evokes a faded X-ray or Xerox of a blank page; superimposed over which the declarative, indexical title announces itself in good old neon pink. Doyle’s debut novel, Here Are the Young Men, has a similarly deictic, prosodic title that, like this follow-up, simultaneously manages to present and distance itself from the auditor by an inviting obliquity. The dust jacket of The Lilliput Press’s simultaneous edition (hardback, likewise neon-tinted) presents a black ’n’ white shot of a solitary figure on a bridge over water, perhaps troubled. And this is salient, because Doyle’s technically impressive story collection enacts a similar effect upon the reader.
These stories, undeniably tinged by the fallout of modernity, largely situate themselves within a diminished European tradition whose spirit of anomie hankers for something lost and possibly irretrievable. In this sense it is no surprise to find names like Virginia Woolf and Roberto Bolaño among the self-consciously literary yet upfront and playful acknowledgements at the book’s close. Whether the roll-call of literary lights makes this dark constellation of stories any easier to sail by is up to the individual reader to decide.
The issue of acknowledgement is of paramount importance to evaluating this book though, for Doyle’s collection is almost aggressively peopled by the spectres of writers and their writings, with many of the stories making explicit mention of real or imaginary authors. “Mexico Drift” opens at a Bret Easton Ellis reading, and lifts character names (“Julian”) from Ellis’s fiction; “On Nietzsche” recounts a frazzled writer’s failing struggle to start a book on the eponymous radical philosopher; while “Martin Knows Me” recounts an (apparently fictional) author’s fantasy of stalking his stylistic hero, Martin Amis. Aside from the inter-textual pleasures that are afforded the erudite by such impressive (if somewhat arch) forays into the legacy of modernism, the interesting question to ask about Doyle’s project might be whether these fictions are simply gifted parodies in the old and best sense of the term: works that seek to sing side-by-side with their inspirational models (that is, whether these stories merely enact the highest form of flattery); whether they are homages whose ulterior motive is to grow their own wings, one day to fly the nest of their geneses (in other words, whether this is a writer in the midst of finding his voice through other voices, other rooms); or whether Doyle is that rare thing, a fully-formed ventriloquist (a bodily stagecraft in its own right, and one that is as darkly subversive as it is sadly underrated). In sum, where does “acknowledgment” blur with “influence” (in the Bloomian sense), and how does this relate to Doyle’s canny presentation of voice?
To answer this, it is worth listening to what Doyle himself has had to say on the issue: in “Read to Find Your Voice”, an online article for writing.ie, he draws an analogy with cannibalism: having absorbed the voices of others through voracious reading, you “will be charged with the force of the voices you have fed upon, cannibal that you are, that all writers are”. By way of primal example, Doyle instances the warriors of Borneo who “chop off the heads of their enemies and drink their blood in the belief that they thereby assimilate their powers”. If we are to take this as a colourful manifesto for literary appropriation and assimilation, we may admit that there is more to be gained from literary parricide than material inheritance, and that there’s more to dressed-up ventriloquism than borrowed fashions. For all their cerebral conversance with the Western philosophical tradition, Doyle’s narrative voices still issue forth with a gut-level urgency that is difficult to contain or dismiss. There is a distinctly modernist flavour to this kind of animism that incidentally looks back, if only askance, to visceral Ur-texts such as Eliot’s The Waste Land and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
However, contrary to our modernist ancestors, Doyle proposes that even the shored ruins which buttressed their dystopian and artistic legacies are today fundamentally outmoded. In an intriguing essay on the controversial French novelist Michel Houellebecq for gorse magazine, Doyle wrote that “the mode of living in the ‘literary’ cultures of Europe and North America, at this late historical moment, is too estranged from that of our forebears for the old techniques to really hit home any more. As ever, a new kind of novel [or fiction] is needed to honour the singularity of our suffering and the foreignness of our struggle.” Perhaps it is this foreignness that spurs Doyle to situate many of his stories outside his native land. Berlin, London, Paris, Barcelona, Glasgow and San Francisco: all feature as backdrops for the abject lives of his protagonists. In a few of the stories, especially the two openers, Ireland stands as an absent centre, or locus of internal exile, with an obvious nod to Joyce. But other than in the strictly cosmopolitan, sophisticated, continental sense in which the likes of Joyce and Beckett established their own cantons of exile, it would be quite mistaken to shoehorn Doyle’s work into any normative Irish tradition; and certainly not into the grand old legacy of Big Houses and repressed desire that seem to have persisted despite the delirium and extinction of the Celtic Tiger, and notwithstanding the new social currents being navigated by nascent talents of Doyle’s vintage. Indeed, Doyle’s preoccupations and tonal dispositions bear closer comparison to the transnational, exilic and anti-literary aspects of Roberto Bolaño’s oeuvre; the title story itself, alongside a fragmentary sequence called “Outposts” is reminiscent of the Chilean’s idiosyncratic and disorienting novel Antwerp.
As it happens, I came across this is the ritual prior to being asked to review it. In that sense, I came to it like a typical punter. The cover had caught my eye and the pretty girl standing next to me, mirthful as she read, had piqued my curiosity (sucker that I am). I opened and ran my eyes over the contents page. “Anus – Black Sun”: the title raised both eyebrows. Intrigued by the brash lapel-grab alongside its allusion to Deleuze & Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus (Doyle studied psychoanalysis at Trinity College, Dublin), I went directly to the book’s heart of darkness. Like the pornographic video it describes, a forty-three minute still of “an anus, in close-up”, this short story is a “kind of obscene and feral orphan” that elicits in its viewer an abysmal but transcendent contemplation of the void.
[Reviewer’s interpolation here: I never tend to read an entire story start to finish while standing in a bookshop; I ordinarily read a couple of paragraphs then skim around to sample morsels of other tales. Be that as it may, in this case I was compelled (as the video’s viewer is) to bear witness to the end. And it left me squirming and shuddering, wincing and flinching, as when a woman runs her talons down a chalkboard.]
In his essay on Houellebecq, Doyle posits that the central challenge of modernity resides in the existential quandary of nihilism: “What binds us, when all the ideologies and narratives are in ruin, and the illusions have been dispersed? Is there any compelling reason to climb out of the pit of self and seek connection to a greater truth and purpose? Do such truths or purposes even exist? The stakes are high. The struggle with nihilism is nothing less than the struggle to prevent the living soul, in all its fragility, contingency and miraculous beauty, from committing suicide.” To the extent that Doyle’s stories are unafraid to face these extremely discomfiting questions head-on without providing readymade or reassuring answers, his work is as serious and courageous as it is visceral and stylish.
Doyle’s dispatches from the outposts of our collective psyche disturb and haunt in equal measure; but they are also, at times, uproariously humorous. I’m keen to keep in mind that readers essentially come to a review to find out whether they should actually read the book or not (bought or not). The short answer to this enquiry is: yes, read this book (begged, borrowed, or stolen), if for no other reason than to take toll of what Ireland’s increasingly visible new generation of talent is beginning to produce by way of a tradition moving steadily away from the now vaguely foreign fields of McGahern’s Ireland (lustrous though they remain) and into a foreignness no less real for being in no way green.
Tom Tracey holds a DPhil in English from St. John’s College, Oxford. He has published scholarly essays on the work of David Foster Wallace. His poems have appeared in several publications including Agenda’s online Broadsheet no. 23 (2014) and Oxford Poetry (2008). He lives and teaches in his hometown, Dublin.