- 25 Feb 20
Having shaken up the Irish literary world with his no-holds-barred debut Here Are The Young Men, Rob Doyle has returned with Threshold, a genre-blurring mix of fact and fiction. He talks sex, drugs, politics, transgressive art and more.
Rob Doyle’s latest book, Threshold, makes for a uniquely disorientating reading experience. Having been a fan of his debut novel Here Are The Young Men – a nihilistic, darkly humorous portrait of aimless Dublin teens – I was intrigued when the book came across my desk.
From a cursory glance at the accompanying press release, I began reading Threshold on the assumption it was Doyle’s reflections on his drug use over the years. Quite quickly, I came to think of it as more of a conventional memoir, before – fully 100 pages in, as the comedic absurdities began to mount – I did a quick Google check and found it wasn’t intended as straightforward autobiography at all.
In my defence, it’s an easy mistake to make. Following the travails of a narrator called “Rob Doyle”, who relays his thoughts on sex, drugs, travel, culture and failed relationships with a mix of dark intensity and black humour, Threshold is a highly unusual read. It’s also a hugely compelling one – but was Doyle looking to chart fresh creative terrain with this potent mix of autobiography and fiction?
“I didn’t sit down and say, ‘I’m gonna break new ground’,” reflects the 37-year-old author in his strong Dublin accent, sitting in the Library Bar. “It was more the case that I had come to a period where, let’s say, the traditional novel wasn’t that interesting to me. Whereas, I was very compelled to write about certain things – including travel, places I’d lived, and very personal issues. There were metaphysical, philosophical questions driving me at the time.”
Reading Threshold, I struggled to think of similar books, with the nearest comparison I could recall being the opening chapter of Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park. There, Ellis exaggerated his youthful hedonism and playboy reputation to sublime effect, resulting in a comedic tour de force. Are there any other books Doyle feels occupy similar territory to Threshold?
“It is its own thing which I’m proud of, but there are plenty of forebears,” he suggests. “Not to say that he was a direct influence, but you could even go back to someone like Henry Miller. His novel Tropic Of Cancer – what is that? Is it a memoir? Is it a novel? These days they would probably use this slightly suspect term autofiction, which we seem to think is something new, but actually it’s been around forever.
“Like, there’s been Miller, DH Lawrence... I would never see myself as following any trends or anything – I don’t think any serious writer does that. But I do think there’s something in the air, where I’m one of quite a few contemporary writers, who more or less at the same time – and for reasons that are probably historical – have become a bit bored with the conventional tropes of narrative fiction.”
Threshold does mark a significant shift from Here Are The Young Men, which for all its gritty verité, was still a novel in the conventional sense.
“It was,” nods Doyle. “It had characters and lots of dialogue, and I wasn’t averse to employing some of those techniques in the new book. I like to think of it as genre anarchy. Traditionally, you have a hierarchy of genres, and fiction for some reason seemed to be at the top. Whereas, I don’t believe that the novel-y novel is somehow superior to a book of non-fiction or a memoir. And in fact, I’m not even entirely sure about how real the division between these genres are, so I like to think I’ve written a book that completely disrespects those borders.”
As indicated by its lysergic cover, drugs are among Threshold’s primary themes. What did Doyle hope to illuminate about the subject?
“I’ve said this before, but even though there’s a lot of drug use in the book, it’s not really about that,” he explains. “In fact, the epigraph by the filmmaker Gaspar Noe says as much: ‘Even if it’s often a case about getting high, this is not really a work about getting high’. For me, drugs were a way to get into consciousness, and questions about the ultimate nature of reality. The first and final chapters are about psychedelics, and they’re very research heavy, but they’re also very personally exploratory as well.
“They’re kind of personal histories of my own fascination with psychedelic experiences, interspersed with a cultural history of these substances, and the role they’ve had in shaping contemporary culture. It also looks at the role they’ve had in undermining certain belief systems, and throwing into disrepute certain systems of thought. These things have been of great fascination to me, and I’ve been very enthusiastic about them down the years, since my late teens.
“Which is not to say it was always painless – I got into some hairy situations with them. I just wanted to write about that. But again, it’s not just some drug memoir. There’s so much else going on.”
In an era where sex and drugs are often treated with an almost censorious tone by critics, does Doyle feel he has to be particularly nimble in exploring those themes? Is he ever concerned about being accused of sexism, for example?
“I wouldn’t say I worry about it, but I am aware of it,” he considers. “If you allow that to censor you, you’re fucked. You’re just another superfluous writer, a coward, and you’re going to be one of those writers who exist and tell the culture whatever it wants to hear at a given moment.”
Here Are The Young Men stood apart from the contemporary Irish literary scene in a number of important ways. Though its milieu was profoundly and recognisably Irish, its depiction of teenagers adrift in a media-saturated landscape of drink, drugs, sex and violence had an authenticity that jarred – it was a breakthrough moment for the the country’s new literary generation.
“You’re far from the first person who’s said that,” acknowledges Doyle. “I just knew that if I could get it published, it would touch a nerve. Because I was in the same position as you – I was the guy who was quite bookish, and then reading these Irish books, I just felt like, ‘This is an alien planet these people are on’. I couldn’t find a book that spoke to the experiences that me and a lot of my mates had.
“There’s still a hell of a lot of angst, psychic malaise and disturbed thinking in Threshold, but again, even though it was less driven by rage, I think the exploration became something different. I was motivated by other concerns writing this book.”
Doyle sensed a cultural shift during its creation.
“As I was writing it, the culture was undergoing this kind of nervous breakdown,” he recalls. “You were getting this kind of prissy, campus totalitarianism. For a few years, like so many people, I got a lot of shit thrown at me for that. I went looking for it to a certain extent – I was just so profoundly cynical, and I remain so. But I think the culture has changed in the meantime, and the worst excesses of that moment have passed. At that time, the most sheltered, cloistered kind of people had some sort of cultural power, and nobody had yet critiqued and exposed them as puritan frauds.”
Though I’ve been left wing my whole life, there have been certain culturally revisionist moments I couldn’t get onboard with – the farcical idea of Taxi Driver being some kind of pro-incel treatise, for example.
“Economically, I’m probably far left,” says Doyle. “I usually don’t even pay much attention to Irish politics, but I love this idea that this election is really going to stick a knife into the power structures here.”
The night before our interview, Mary Lou McDonald had enjoyed yet another landmark campaign moment, once again making Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar look hopelessly stiff and fake during the RTÉ leaders’ debate. It continued a noticeable trend in 21st century politics: voters are now responding to politicians who are recognisably themselves, and disregard old-fashioned posturing and pretence.
“I completely agree,” says Doyle. “I feel that Ireland could now be having its 2016 moment. As vile as Trump was, and Brexit is just a complete travesty, I feel at the same time, it was the masses finally getting their revenge on the people who tell them what they’re allowed do.
“I feel like a violently radical vote in this election might be the same thing. But I guess what I was getting at was that I turned quite sour on the culture and got into plenty of scraps, as it became more and more toxic. It was just bullshit. The ‘woke’ fucking thing, I just don’t trust it as far as I can throw it. In fact, I became convinced, and I still am convinced, that the worst of all that stuff – the language policing and so on – was just class warfare by other means.
“So much of it, and so many of the people who would throw shit at me, were just fucking rich kids out to seize some kind of cultural power. There was a lot of denigration of working class means of expression and so on. Anyway, I’m getting off the point! What I was getting at, was that writing the book, I realised that I just have to do what I’ve always done, which is to stay as fully true to my own experience and evaluations as possible. And not let the censoriousness of the culture influence it.”
Finally, we turn to the upcoming movie version of Here Are The Young Men, adapted by Irish writer-director Eoin Macken, and starring 1917’s Dean Charles-Chapman, Peaky Blinders’ Finn Cole and The Witch’s Anya-Taylor Joy.
“I’m told it’ll be out in 2020, touch wood,” says Doyle. “I collaborated with Eoin on the first couple of drafts of the screenplay, and then I was more concerned with writing Threshold. I’d spent so long on Here Are The Young Men, I just wanted something new. So he took over the reins and kept working on the script.
“Then a couple of years passed and I was starting to doubt whether it would ever be made. But in the summer of 2018 I got a text saying, ‘Told you it would happen, we finally got the money’. I was living in Berlin then, and I came back and had a little cameo. I’m in the rave scene, dancing with all my mates.
“I haven’t even read the final script, I’m told it’s quite different from the novel, cos that’s just the nature of the process. But I saw a few cassettes and it was a pretty awesome production. So yeah, I’m looking forward to it.”
Threshold is out now, published by Bloomsbury Circus.
Read Hot Press' review here.