A slightly edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 9 February 2020.
Rob Doyle’s new novel is a trip – in all manner of ways. In the company of his protagonist Rob Doyle (let’s call the writer Doyle and the protagonist Rob) we move from magic mushroom adventures in the Phoenix Park, to the documenta art festival in Kassel, from acid trips in Paris to sexual frustration in Sicily. We are transported from the darkest recesses of the subconscious and encounters with DMT elves to the Hieronymous Boschian squalor of a cellar in a Berlin night club where the arcane sexual preferences of its denizens are detailed with extra relish. The American writer Robert Stone maintained that “life is a means of extracting fiction” and this is the formula that applies to Doyle’s exhilarating and highly-entertaining work. The writer himself (ostensible authorial intrusions in the text are in italics) clarifies the matter on page 283 when he tells us that his novel is a “blend of memory, dream, learning and invention”. Rob is an engaging companion on these journeys. The tone is mostly rueful self-deprecation as the writer fails to write the books he should be writing. It’s colorful, scabrous, humorous and laced with arcane literary knowledge. A recurring motif is Rob’s consciousness of growing older and the falling off of intensity that being 34 entails.
Those familiar with Doyle’s work will have noted his predilection for writers such as E. M Cioran and Georges Bataille – for the profane and the scatological. His protagonist Rob seems to be going off them. He now sees everything about Bataille as “cadaverous, putrefactive, pitch-black, violent and obscene”. Visiting both their graves he finds himself moving beyond their sterile nihilism although he does quote with relish Bataille’s epitaph on a Montpernasse Cemetery gravestone: “One day this living world will pullulate in my dead mouth.” Heady stuff. After a lengthy flirtation he also finds his enthusiasm for Buddhism waning. It’s asceticism is not for him and he is unwilling to abandon the three so-called defilements of consciousness: greed, hatred and delusion. He maintains however his higher love for Nietzsche and the pronouncements of the great man add heft throughout the text.
While the journey shows Rob shaking off some earlier affiliations he is also finding new ones. The concluding section is a hymn of praise to the visionary powers of DMT. Like the book itself this section is entitled Threshold – surely a nod to Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. DMT is a very powerful, short-lasting psychedelic that blasts you into realms “that are unimaginably bizarre, and populated by non-human entities with baffling intentions.” It is claimed that the drug provides insights into the ultimate reality behind the painted veil of our quotidian existence. “The world in its nakedness is vast, vivid, and shocking.” One of Rob’s friends claims that you can only remain an atheist if you keep your dose of DMT below 40 milligrams. Maybe there’s a solution here for the waning power of the Catholic Church.
If you are thinking that perhaps Rob’s mind is addled from his adventures with hallucinogens then two of sections that confront contemporary art will give you pause. He visits a Tino Sehgal exhibition in Paris. Sehgal is an architect of human interaction and Rob gives the reader an insightful and admiring account of the constructed situations that he creates. He takes a detour to Kassel to check out documenta (note that pretentious lower case d) – a contemporary art fair that occurs every five years. There he encounters the Parthenon of Books – a recreation of the Grecian original consisting entirely of banned books. Rob sides with the book burners reflecting that having a book banned gives authors the prestige of rock gods. “You couldn’t buy that kind of publicity”. He is thoroughly unimpressed with the direction taken by contemporary art seeing it as “a festival of piety and earnest political sighs”.
It’s no surprise to read that Doyle is an admirer of William Blake. Rob has undertaken a demanding route march along the road of excess and his journey terminates in a palace of wisdom. Acid is not the answer we learn but DMT may well be. However, beneath all the constant drinking, the searching for enlightenment, the frenetic drug taking, the writerly ennui, the vacuous sex, the slacking and the constant traveling thrums Gaspar Noé’s chastening observation at the start of the book about “the shimmering vacuity of the human experience.”