Rob Doyle: ‘an original and cocksure writer riding the crest of the new wave’

There are trace elements of Laurence Sterne’s irascibility, James Joyce at his bawdiest, and also the scandalous eroticism of Georges Bataille, says gorse editor Susan Tomaselli

Susan Tomaselli on This is the Ritual: “There is a bleak streak throughout the collection as Doyle takes us through the psychological turmoil of our times and hard sells simultaneously alien but painfully familiar landscapes. Though he brings us to the brink, and threatens to propel us into an irredeemable gloom, we are in very assured hands”

Susan Tomaselli on This is the Ritual: “There is a bleak streak throughout the collection as Doyle takes us through the psychological turmoil of our times and hard sells simultaneously alien but painfully familiar landscapes. Though he brings us to the brink, and threatens to propel us into an irredeemable gloom, we are in very assured hands”

 

One of the great fibs about “Irish literature” is that there is such a thing as “Irish literature”. Instead, consider it a brilliantly elastic term that can be yanked to snapping point to accommodate the Holy Trinity of Irish writers (Joyce, Beckett and O’Brien) and Elizabeth Bowen’s big house, but also Aidan Higgins’ balconies of Europe, and flâneuse Maeve Brennan’s Broadway. More recently, “Irish literature” receives Keith Ridgway’s fragmented London, Gavin Corbett’s demented New York, Kevin Barry’s post-apocalyptic Bohane, and Eimear McBride’s inner world of Girl. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, it contradicts itself, it is large, it contains multitudes.

In fact, Rob Doyle gamely tackles the question about what “Irish literature” is allowed to do head on in This Is The Ritual, through the story of vanished literary outlaw Killian Turner: “Turner’s gradual shredding of his national identity undoubtedly had a stimulating effect on the development of his art. Shorn of parochial concerns which predominate the work of many Irish writers of his generation, Turner was freed to soar far from the homeland, towards more universal or exotic themes.”

There is no cow too holy for Doyle to slaughter. In the opening story, Doyle’s cipher John-Paul Finnegan trolls that great modernist behemoth in one bilious, and hilarious, diatribe: “Not a single fucking dickhead in all of Ireland has actually read Ulysses...Yet everyone in Ireland pretends to have read Ulysses, or acts like they’ve read it, but none of them have.” Though Finnegan concedes, “Come to think of it, there were a few professors who came after Joyce who also read Ulysses, or rather, they didn’t read it, they killed it, they killed Ulysses by James Joyce, just like they have killed almost every other book that was once worth reading.”

They killed it, Finnegan tells us like a sweary version of Declan Kiberd, by “rendering it a desiccated literary relic”, by making it the “most boring and flaccid book in the world, when of course it is anything but the most boring and flaccid book in the world, it is in fact deeply subversive, scatological, irreverent, perverse, and above all, diabolically deviant. That is, the form and the content of the book are deviant: they deviate from good taste, from literary classicism, from the boredoms of morality and plot, and from sentimentality – in other words, from all the shit of literature...”

Though that last sentence could serve as a blueprint for much of the story collection, Doyle is a much cleverer, more nuanced writer than “paltry realist” John-Paul Finnegan (of course he is, Finnegan is an invention). Deviant, yes, there are trace elements of Laurence Sterne’s irascibility, Joyce at his bawdiest, and also the scandalous eroticism of Georges Bataille (Anus - Black Sun).

Does writing have the power to shock any longer? Doyle thinks not, telling this paper that gone were the days a book could upset anyone, that we’re blasé about graphic sex, drug and alcohol abuse. Yet Doyle’s ability to distress the reader is there, resting on his use of the visual and spoken language of movies (Gaspar Noé in particular), television and music to upset, and frustrate, expectations.

At times, Doyle’s stories remind me of the British artists Jake and Dinos Chapman, not their Zygotic Acceleration mannequins with the penis noses and oversized trainers, but their so-called vandalism of Goya etchings, works where The Chapman Brothers literally drew on and remade Goya’s Disasters of War series.

In Outposts, a piece I published in an earlier edition of gorse, Doyle takes an antic and fractured approach to the written word. Comprised of vignettes, shards of text cribbed from a veritable rag-bag of sources – Colm Tóibín, Bataille, Desmond Hogan, Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Albert Camus, graffiti in a ghost estate on the Wexford coast, and so on (Doyle lists them at the back of the book) – he reworks them in to his own voice. Designed like Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, the “story” can be read in random order, ruining any notion of plot.

“We’re trying to ruin the assumption art has some progressive motion to it, to undermine the heroic nature of making art,” the Chapmans say. Writing is not a heroic act in This Is The Ritual, it ends in bitter rivalry (Paris Story), failure (On Nietszche), literary obscurity (Exiled in the Infinite – Killian Turner, Ireland’s Vanished Literary Outlaw; Three Writers; Jean-Paul Passolet, a Reminiscence), sometimes all three. “Failure can be a kind of career. Bitterness too,” Doyle writes. Doyle, in fact, writes himself into This Is The Ritual, blurring the line between fiction and “reality”. In a risky act of repetition, the author walks through several of his own stories as “some frazzled drifter Rob Doyle”.

“I don’t know if I will ever read Passolet again, if I could re-experience the fervour his words ignited in me when I was young,” Doyle continues. “Perhaps the most I can do to honour Passolet is to strive to fulfil what he himself called the sole duty of the artist and writer: to bear witness to the horror, and to the magnificence.”

There is a bleak streak throughout the collection as Doyle takes us through the psychological turmoil of our times and hard sells simultaneously alien but painfully familiar landscapes. Though he brings us to the brink, and threatens to propel us into an irredeemable gloom, we are in very assured hands.

“Irish literature” is all the better for that elasticity, the lack of fixity. If we have learnt anything from the post-crash literary boom – and the Guardian tells us we should have – it’s that the “conservative writing – all nostalgia and sexual repression” of yore has been replaced by the original and cocksure writers of the new wave. Rob Doyle is one of those riding the crest.

Susan Tomaselli is the editor of the literary journal gorse.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 Dublin’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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