This is the Ritual, by Rob Doyle: Brooding narratives of tentative iconoclasm
Doyle’s storytelling is compelling, engaging, suffused with wit, honesty and emotional intelligence but it is still only a tentative foray. There is more, and better, to come
Rob Doyle, whose fiction deals with themes of sex, death, guilt, shame and the meaning of existence. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images
This Is the Ritual
‘Pessimistic novelists, a veritable production line of them. What are they trying to do, overthrow our civilisation? They’ll only overthrow themselves.” Thus muses an unnamed speaker in The Closest I Ever Got, one of 18 short stories that constitute Rob Doyle’s second book, This is the Ritual. This exasperated soliloquy strikes a disarmingly self-effacing note in a collection so palpably saturated in the fervour of brooding iconoclasm. Doyle’s fiction deals with life’s major themes: sex, death, guilt, shame, the meaning of existence. Readers who enjoyed his debut novel, Here are the Young Men, will be pleased to find him much unchanged in these pages. His characters are an array of fretful souls – among them, inevitably, a number of writers – atomised and scattered across Paris, London, Berlin and Dublin. They namecheck Friedrich Nietzsche, James Joyce and Georges Bataille, trundle listlessly through sexual encounters and are variously neurotic, obsessive and occasionally psychotic.
Several of these stories are poignant pen pictures of failed or forgotten authors – some apparently fictitious, others not – delivered in a curiously ambivalent register that blends an obituarist’s detached laconicism with the didactic tones of an acolyte. These include Killian Turner, whose father, we are told, set him up nicely for a life in letters by telling him that “Religion, morality, truth, human solidarity – these are nothing . . . but the consoling fictions bred by our proximity to the abyss.”
Doyle’s portrait of David Haynes, a hapless Martin Amis fanatic, begins with the observation that “Failure can be a kind of career. Bitterness too.” Haynes is unsuccessful in his literary endeavours, but at least he ends up in one piece. The subject of Jean-Pierre Passolet: a Reminiscence is not so lucky: having ill- advisedly mutilated his member in a paroxysm of quasi-religious epiphany, the impotent philosopher is condemned to spend his twilight years being repeatedly cuckolded by his younger girlfriend. Being a writer, in summary, is no picnic.
An intriguing 30-page segment entitled Outposts, comprising seven stories including the eponymous This is the Ritual, presents a departure from Doyle’s usual style, eschewing coherent narrative in favour of fragmented syntax and oblique vignettes reminiscent of the experimental French novelist Nathalie Sarraute. The Outer Sites splices erotic reveries with current-affairs soundbites (“Fearsome tyrants butchered on camera – the embassy in flames”– an apparent reference to the fall of Gadafy) in a manner that recalls the cinematic dissonance of JG Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, perhaps nowhere more so than in a stage-direction parenthesis unaccountably stipulating “(footage of mushroom cloud over the Bikini Atoll)”.
This eccentric intermission makes up only a small fraction of the whole; the majority of these stories, though stylistically brisk and immediate, are essentially formally conservative. In Paris Story a writer, jealous of the literary success of a female friend, publishes a scathing review of her work under a pseudonym. She suffers a crisis of confidence and rushes to him for comfort; they sleep together and a full-scale romance blossoms. It is a consummate example of the practice popularly known as negging – pummelling a woman’s self- esteem the better to win her over – and speaks, like so many of these tales, to the profound personal insecurity at the heart of the creative process.
But is this not all terribly self-absorbed? A salutary measure of ironic hyperbole immunises Doyle against that charge. Take, for example, the protagonist of John-Paul Finnegan, Paltry Realist, a frustrated wordsmith who, having determined to take a stand against “the vanity of writing well” and the inherently affected “infinite bollocks” of literary style, proclaims himself the vanguard of a new genre, “paltry realism”, that renounces all aspirations to quality. His magnum opus turns out to be an inconsequential, profanity-ridden dirge.
There is the kernel of a serious point here – of particular resonance in a world of tweets, emojis and postmodernist eclecticism – but the overriding gist is an affectionate send-up of misdirected zeal and the futility of avant-gardist purism. The trajectory will be familiar to many an aspiring novelist: you discover Joyce; nothing will ever be quite the same again; you drive yourself (and those close to you) round the bend trying to emulate him. Doyle is both alive to the absurdities of this process and – being an active participant in it – sympathetic to the struggle.
The gloomy introspection reaches a ludicrous apogee in Anus – Black Sun, the narrator of which finds himself mesmerised by a bizarre pornographic clip in which nothing recognisably sexual happens – it is just an inordinately lengthy extreme close- up of someone’s bottom. He fancies he can discern, in this cavitary footage, “intimations of a sublime geometry, of astronomy, of black holes, galaxy clusters, the swirl of incipient being-in-the-void which is how I envision the cosmic birth”. Navel-gazing with an anatomical twist; one could scarcely accuse this author of taking himself too seriously.
The past couple of years have been a fruitful period for fans of philosophy-as- fiction. In its various forms – Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti, Tom McCarthy and, most notably, Karl Ove Knausgaard – it is perhaps the closest thing we have to a contemporary literary zeitgeist. Though Doyle’s fiction is more traditionally novelistic than those writers’ works, its autobiographical allusions fit within the broader trend, currently in vogue, of writing about writing.
The very nature of this volume’s preoccupations – the vexed question of literary credibility; the terror of failure or, even worse, of a tantalising flicker of success followed by a slide into obscurity – reminds us that this is an author very much at the beginning of his literary journey.
The stories in This is the Ritual are an exercise in exploratory riffing, a marking out of a developmental moment. They are a start. Yes, every young artist must shed his inner fanboy; but becoming cognisant of that fact is not the same thing as doing it. Doyle’s storytelling is compelling and engaging, suffused with wit, honesty and emotional intelligence. It is still, for all that, only a tentative foray. There is more, and better, to come.
Houman Barekat is a literary critic