Joanna Walsh on This is the Ritual by Rob Doyle: ‘a world-class writer’

Doyle has created a playful range of potential genres in which he squares the tricky circle of writing about ‘alienating or inappropriate behaviour’ while keeping narrative distance

Joanna Walsh on This is the Ritual: Instead of the “usual doleful anarchism”, Rob Doyle constructs bold, clever, gleeful narrative puzzles that invite the reader in, and that create space for a new kind of bravura vulnerability

Joanna Walsh on This is the Ritual: Instead of the “usual doleful anarchism”, Rob Doyle constructs bold, clever, gleeful narrative puzzles that invite the reader in, and that create space for a new kind of bravura vulnerability

 

“I only got into writing because any fucker can do it,” said Fredrick Mulligan, in his only “extant” interview.

Mulligan is only one of a range of “Irish writers” profiled by Rob Doyle in his exuberant story collection, This Is The Ritual, the first being “John-Paul Finnegan-Paltry Realist”, whose scabrously funny, unparagraphed rant takes place on the Ulysses, a ferry bringing the author “home” from Britain to Dublin. “Everyone in Ireland pretends to have read Ulysses,” the almost perversely-Irishly named Finnegan tells the narrator, a younger Irish writer called “Rob Doyle”. Doyle has read Joyce, so can he be Irish? And is This Is The Ritual Irish writing?

The Irish are full of “no qualities at all”, paradoxes J-P F, if something can be full of an absence, which Doyle’s stories, expertly, are. They deal with absent women – usually lovers – and men – often writers, like the “vanished” Killian Turner, whose remarks are always “obscure” – and the anxiety produced by these disappearing acts.

The literary critic Harold Bloom’s 1973 work, The Anxiety of Influence, defined what one of Doyle’s narrators calls “the kind of brutal vanquishing we must inflict on our heroes, if we are to become who we are”. Like Bloom, Doyle’s subject is the anxious influence of (largely) male writers – “dickheads of the avant-garde” as J-P F puts it – on one another, the difference being that it might be difficult to track down Killian Turner’s books in any real-life library.

“People liked me,” says “Jean-Pierre Passolet”, “because I wasn’t there.” Doyle’s characters have names and histories, despite their absences, and they themselves write fictions in which their avatars, and those of friends, feature “without logic or pattern, only to reappear with different names and personalities.” Less real than his literary creations, “Rob Doyle” also appears fleetingly, unlike the other “Irish writers” his name inside scare quotes.

The stories play with a range of narrative voices, from that of literary biography to txt-spk email. “What matter who’s speaking?” Beckett asked. In Doyle’s stories, it’s as well to pay attention. The Turk Inside contains more “I”s than any other story. The “i”s become lower-case in Final Email From P Cranley. Where “I” is most consistently used is where identity is least stable.

There’s an interest in, and a terror of, indeterminacy: “faces blend together, so do the bodies,” in the work of the artist in Barcelona. In No Man’s Land, the narrator dreams of a drifter, a terrifying possible future self: “there were no longer two of us, but one, we were together, he had come into me.” “That was really him fucking me,” says the narrator of The Turk Inside, as he imagines a strip-club owner with his “exotic dancer” sometime girlfriend. “She’s my boyfriend,” he roars drunkenly at the bouncer.

Where bodies and sexualities are exchangeable as identities, it’s no surprise that sexual jealousy is a dominant theme. Doyle’s women are often unfaithful, leaving behind nothing but empty shoes. There’s a lot of sex, told direct as Catherine Millet, but, twinned with the withdrawals of the plot-deleted emails and Facebook accounts, changed phone numbers; the sprawling dead ends of modern life – what Doyle sets up is complicated, ambitious and satisfying in its constant deferral of satisfaction, a preservation of desire.

The stories in This Is The Ritual take place in the zones between elegantly constructed, shifting funhouse floors, of being here and – simultaneously – elsewhere. The Outposts is a perfect storm in which mixed quotes – a vertigo of fugitive sentences – match “landscapes seen through train windows” in juxtaposed scenes that cannot be fully perceived. In a world which “had lost… its narrative direction”, a state closely associated with lawlessness (“motive is shame to the contemporary London thug”), what matters is the idea of story itself.

In Paris Story, a novelist, whose work is based on long research and roman à clef, is bested by his friend, an author of short stories. He writes an anonymous bad review, which leads to them becoming lovers, partners, then participants in a mysterious narrative, larger than their own. This is not the only story in which make-believe invades life. In On Nietzsche, the protagonist writes a “hateful and charmless” character, giving him his own name, highlighting the difficulties posed by a writer’s association with his subject.

It is difficult, as John-Paul Finnegan, says, or rather, rants, “to deviate from good taste, from literary classicism, from the boredom’s of morality and plot, and from sentimentality.” From the Paddy Slasher to the Nazi Pastoral (which is, says Doyle’s narrator “either a joke in questionable taste, or the nostalgic vindictive fantasy of a confused and lonely man”), Doyle has created a playful range of potential genres that provide an arena in which he squares the almost impossible circle of writing about “alienating or inappropriate behaviour” while maintaining a certain narrative distance.

If Killian Turner’s aim was to “explode prejudices about what “‘Irish literature’ was allowed to do”, so is his creator’s. Doyle is not only an “Irish writer”, but a European – a world-class – writer, part of an international conversation about autofiction, (blends of fiction and autobiography that call narrative concepts into question), that includes authors such as Chris Kraus, Sheila Heti, Emmanuel Carrère, Marie NDiaye and Dubravka Ugrešic.

As the diaspora is a thing, there is no way any fleeing Irish writer can completely escape his national literary identity: the fleeing is part of it. After their “twenties – those horny, traumatic years,” the “young men” of Doyle’s first novel are turning 30. They’ve left the country but failed to find themselves anywhere else. For them “failure can be a kind of career” comments the biographer of “David Haynes”, one of the few “writers” who seems to have ended up with a pleasant life if – perhaps inevitably – not that of an author. Nihilism is fun, as one character says, “when you haven’t yet had to live in the ruins.” But Doyle himself is not any of his sad young literary men. His stories – like the narrator of The Turk Inside – are “hoping for I don’t know what, some kind of new horizon, a human connection”. Instead of their “usual doleful anarchism”, Doyle constructs bold, clever, gleeful narrative puzzles that invite the reader in, and that create space for a new kind of bravura vulnerability. Human? All too human.

Joanna Walsh’s latest work is Vertigo (Tramp Press). This is the Ritual by Rob Doyle is published by Bloomsbury and Dublin’s Lilliput Press. Over the next four weeks, we shall be exploring the collection in detail, with interviews and articles by the author, his editors, fellow writers and critics, culminating in a podcast interview which will be recorded at the Irish Writers Centre in Dulbin’s Parnell Square on Tuesday, April 19th, at 7.30pm, and published on irishtimes.com at the end of the month

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