Rob Doyle: ‘Frankly, a lot of my life has been disastrous’
The novelist on breaking out of being a ‘greatest hits of writerly cliche’
Author Rob Doyle. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
The first time this writer interviewed Rob Doyle, shortly after the publication of his debut novel, Here Are the Young Men, I suggested that his life story read like an identikit assembly of cult writers’ biographies. Beat/Bukowski menial labour/post office stint? Tick. Burroughsian experiments with Yage in South America? Tick. Lowell/Plath-like breakdown episode? Tick.
Doyle’s new novel, Threshold, a book that casually vaporises the boundaries between autobiography, travelogue and philosophical/pharmacological exploration, only reinforces that impression. If you fancy some Terence McKenna adventures in consciousness expansion, or Isherwood-esque exile in the most decadent cellars of Berlin, or down and out sojourns in Paris and London, step right up.
“God, I’m a greatest hits of writerly cliche,” Doyle says with a chuckle when we meet on a winter afternoon in a Dublin bar, “the pure postmodern product!” He looks, of course, every bit the quintessential writer: six feet plus, rake thin, prematurely greying hair, trailing a Leonard Cohen raincoat.
“I suppose, to be honest, I am a little bit proud that I came from that other way of writing,” he elaborates, sipping a glass of red wine. “I’m totally working class; my parents didn’t even do the Junior Cert, let alone the Leaving Cert; they were both postal workers until they retired. I went to college and I had a good education and so on, but it has been said of me, perhaps with some justification, that I have a romanticised idea of the writerly life, and I guess my way of going at writing was to really throw myself at life, which meant travel, which meant a bit too much heartbreak and personal ruin, crisis after crisis. Not that I chose these things, they just kind of kept befalling me. I went through some severe hell when I was in my early 20s, and I think that gave me that thousand-yard-stare alienation from normal life that cut me off from any possibility of ever not being some sort of writer.”
Does he really believe that such experiences accidentally befall us? Surely we choose them, subconsciously or not.
“In this book I – or he, the narrator, let’s say – quotes Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now: ‘Everyone gets everything he wants.’ I am very interested in the idea.”
Indeed, it arises in an episode in Threshold that references Sogyal Rinpoche’s the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, which suggests that it is we who pass judgment on ourselves after death, not some punitive entity.
I think most of my aspirations these days actually involve being happy
“So if we go to hell it’s not because the gods put us there, but because we judged ourselves and found ourselves wanting. Which is kind of profound. And the idea that all our unfolding karma in this life is the fruit of our own deep will.
“But just to get back to what I was talking about: I think insofar as I’ve lived this, as you say, Beat-inspired, bohemian, somewhat romanticised version of the writer’s life, it’s not something that was consciously chosen, that was just the life I felt compelled to live. And frankly, a lot of it has been disastrous. But the great thing about writing is you get to redeem even a disastrous life and turn it into these things called books, which have this radiance.”
As he’s alluded to, Doyle has been through numerous relationships over the past decade or more, some of which are documented in his writing. Is there a self-destructive compulsion at work in that department?
“For a long, long time there has been, quite frankly. I’m 37 now and it’s only something I’ve been facing up to in the last year or two: this cannot go on. That’s fine when you’re 25, when you’re 29, even when you’re 31, 33, but you start approaching 40 and you get a sense of . . . This book is a book about solitude, a drift through the world, a sort of thirtysomething loneliness, different partners, that kind of thing. But I felt when I came to the end of the book I’d also come to the end of that section of life. It had become empty and hollow. My relationships with people, particularly with women, have been the great sustenance of my life, but that kind of self-destructive [urge to] destroy, burn, torch, sabotage a relationship after a certain amount of time, a few months – I’m kind of at an age where that’s really starting to seem old.”
What’s the impulse behind it?
“I don’t know. There’s a lot of stuff going on. I could talk at length about it, but it would probably get fairly dark and kind of sad, frankly. I’ve always had that kind of kamikaze self-destructive thing in relationships, I’ll always be fighting against that, but I’m in a relationship now which has real depth to it, and a very clear part of my mind is telling me: ‘No, stay with the trouble. What happens if you stare down the devils that always tell you to walk away or ruin something, what happens if you just try and weather the storm?’ Rather than doing my usual thing and just moving on. It feels like that’s the way to personal depth for me now. I mean, I say that, [but] I have no idea how any one particular relationship will play out.
Obviously writing books and creating art is still of absolute importance to me, but I really see great value now in people who have deep, sustaining, stable relationships, and who have families
“But I think most of my aspirations these days actually involve being happy. I used to have a kind of contempt for my own happiness, and for people whose highest goal in life was to somehow become happy, and it was all about the art, it was all about writing books. Obviously writing books and creating art is still of absolute importance to me, but I really see great value now in people who have deep, sustaining, stable relationships, and who have families and all that kind of thing.
“I dunno, I just feel I’m at a very transformative point in my life where everything is up for question, up for grabs. I got sick of being fairly radically unhappy. I used to think that art was enough. I don’t really feel it is enough any more. I feel you need to create the conditions for some sort of long-term relief.”
Some years ago in my kitchen in Wexford, where Doyle was visiting between stays at his parents’ house at Rosslare, we were discussing writers who forge books out of the unsavoury stuff of real life, a lineage that stretches from Celine and Miller up to Geoff Dyer, Rachel Cusk and Karl Ove Knausgaard. Doyle admired the latter, he said, for his willingness to “take one for the team”, writing about everything from sexual dysfunction to his father’s alcoholism. (Around that same time I saw him read a hair-curling section from his short story The Turk Inside – an examination of male sexual obsession and jealousy that manages to be at once knuckle-bitingly graphic and grimly funny – for a suited, booted and ball-gowned cabaret audience.)
Threshold gets similarly close to the bone at times, the narrator recalling periods of sexual starvation during which he develops highly inappropriate crushes on students, or partakes in orgies in subterranean Berlin clubs.
I have a sense, with every book I’ve published, of plunging myself deeper into disgrace, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. I’m somehow very comfortable doing that
“I have a sense, with every book I’ve published, of plunging myself deeper into disgrace, but I wouldn’t want it any other way,” Doyle admits. “I’m somehow very comfortable doing that. Somebody asked Michel Houellebecq: ‘Do you not expect to bring a great degree of shame down upon yourself? How do you deal with the anxiety before you publish something?’ ’Cos he writes in a similarly exposing way. But he said it’s very simple: just imagine that you’re already dead. It works. Because one day you will be dead, and then it’s like: ‘Why did I cower?’
“I think when people read my stuff, what they respond to, or even value in it, is there can be a sense of desperation. This book is quite light in lots of ways, it’s jokey, it’s playful, but I’m never playing around when I write. Whatever happens in the rest of my life, however I screw up, or however I fail to live up to my potential, when I write I just want to go for it, I don’t want to hold anything back, and I don’t want to cower. But actually it doesn’t cost me all that much. I guess I must be an exhibitionist on some level.”
So how does he know when he’s gone too far?
“Well, I guess you never really do, and there’s the risk, there’s the danger, you’re thinking: F**k, am I just actually disgracing myself? I’m actually very prudish in some ways, I think. Maybe that’s why I’m driven to write about this stuff in a more thorough way, or a more kamikaze kind of way, than maybe some other people would. I was always chronically shy, and used to be pathologically so, I had so much to express but I was tongue-tied and not able to. And when you’re writing you can take your time to give maximum intensity to a paragraph or a sentence, you can craft it for months and months to say exactly what you mean.”
And when it’s done properly, it’s like a blood-letting.
“Exactly. In a sense, that’s what books are there for: to say the things you’d never dare to confide in public. I mean, it’s why I read: to get over that basic loneliness of being trapped in my own consciousness, with my own experiences. I trust that if you do it with sufficient wit and intelligence and style and control, you can say all of the things that should never be said, and actually you’ll come out the better for it, lighter for it, because you’ll have relieved yourself, because you’ll have relieved the reader.”
Threshold is published by Bloomsbury