‘The life I’ve lived may seem strange, desperate or unsound to some’ – An Interview with Rob Doyle, by Thom Cuell

Rob Doyle’s third book, Threshold, blends memoir, travelogue, psychedelic exploration and literary obsession. Threshold describes a series of crises (or, alternatively, one ongoing crisis) in the life of its protagonist, ‘Rob Doyle’. Drugs are taken, cities visited, literary pilgrimages undertaken and books unwritten as ‘Doyle’ searches for some form of transcendent experience. Like a moment of epiphany at the peak of a three-day binge, Doyle’s writing is starkly lucid and intimate, building on the savage wit of his previous books, Here are the Young Men and This is the Ritual.

Threshold is described as being ‘somewhere between novel, essay collection, report, travelogue and confession’. Can you tell us a bit about how the book came together in the form that it did?

I began writing Threshold at a point when I had zero interest in writing fictiony fiction: creating artificial selves and having them interact with one another by way of plots, and so on. My second book, This Is the Ritual, had a strong autobiographical bent, with stories that blurred the boundaries between fiction, essay and confession, and featured a ‘Rob Doyle’ character roaming through them. In Threshold, I took that autobiographical bent and ran with it. The book is constructed explicitly on personal experience: of travel; fascinations; art; places I’ve been and people I’ve encountered, some of them real and others figments of my imagination. That last point is crucial: it would be disingenuous to describe Threshold as a work of non-fiction, for the simple reason that I made some of it up. At the same time, much of what happens in the book really did happen. I wrote it the way I did because that was how I could best focus on the ideas and concerns I wanted to explore, get at the insights and images that excited me.

There’s a prejudice you still hear going around to the effect that it’s somehow more virtuous for a writer to invent characters and stories, the insinuation being that work which dispenses with such artifice is tantamount to unseemly self-obsession. Naturally, I don’t buy it. Even though it’s a book about self – about a self, specifically myself – Threshold is an outward-looking work, whose purview ranges from the intimate to the cosmic. It’s about everything from sex and nightclubs to joy and despair, from Buddhist metaphysics to magic mushrooms, from contemporary art to psychic disintegration, from love and longing to pornography and alcohol. In short, it’s a book about being alive.

Your previous books, Here are the Young Men and This is the Ritual, have both featured characters railing against ‘the typical shit of literature’ – is Threshold an attempt to escape from that typical shit?

All I can really do as a writer is trust my instincts. With each book I’m driven to hammer out a form that allows me to lock onto my fascinations without being hobbled by conventions that don’t enliven me at the time of writing. What pleases me about Threshold is that it’s a book made up largely of stuff I love. I have a reputation for writing books that examine the troubling aspects of existence, and while that hasn’t exactly changed, I feel I’ve now written a book that’s also sunny and even relaxed. This is all the more surprising to me in that Threshold emerged from and reflects a period of life that was essentially a prolonged crisis.

As Nietzsche wrote of Human, All Too Human, Threshold really is ‘a monument to a crisis’. So are all my other books. The crisis, finally, is my life, which I’m enjoying thoroughly.

Aside from all that, I’d like to think that Threshold is highly readable: it draws the reader along not by telling a particular story, but rather through an intimate immersion in the author-narrator’s imaginative consciousness as it wanders through the world and encounters phenomena that fascinate, move or frighten it. It’s ekphrastic: there’s a fair amount in there about other artworks and artists, as well as philosophers and writers who got their hooks into me. It’s also a book about places that have enchanted me, about wandering and living elsewhere: Berlin and Paris, Spain and Sicily, Bogotá and San Francisco, Asia and even Ireland. There’s a lot about the mysteries of death and existence. So yes, it’s my attempt to answer the question of what it is I want literature, at this point in my life, to be.

Throughout Threshold, you describe trips on acid, mushrooms, DMT and other drugs – how do you approach writing about psychedelic experiences? How do you make it seem fresh? And who else do you think does it well?

While there are quite a few drug experiences described in Threshold, for the most part drugs are secondary to what I may as well call the book’s existential concerns. (As the epigraph by Gaspar Noé partly reads, ‘Even if it’s often a question of getting high, it’s not a work about getting high…’) I’m not so much interested in drugs as in consciousness. Writing about drugs was a way of probing the stranger, sometimes more frightening zones of consciousness. To discuss psychedelics in a way that felt free of the clichés associated with this stuff, my approach was simply to write in an intimate, non-sensationalistic manner about the significance psychedelics have had for me, why I’ve found them so interesting. By writing about magic mushrooms, for instance, I was led to write about certain phases of my life: my college years; traveling in Thailand; a period I spent living in San Francisco, and so on.

Until recently there was a cultural stigma around psychedelics. They bore strong associations with dudes in Grateful Dead t-shirts, evoked an aesthetic that was stale and embarrassing. These last few years, it’s been exciting to observe how psychedelics are being rediscovered and reimagined by the mainstream. Their influence is everywhere – just look at any recent Björk video. Above all, psychedelics for me are a gateway to realms of beauty and wonderment, and when I write about them that’s what I’m hoping to evoke. There are plenty of authors who write well on psychedelics. A year or so ago Michael Pollan and Tao Lin both published stimulating books on the subject. I enjoyed those, while feeling I’d been beaten to the finish line: I wrote Threshold’s first chapter, on magic mushrooms, back in 2014, and its final chapter, on DMT, in 2016, yet the book is appearing only now. The late Terrence McKenna is undoubtedly the most entertaining writer (and speaker) on psychedelics. Other writers on the subject I’ve benefitted from include Daniel Pinchbeck, Rick Strassman and Graham St. John. A friend of mine pointed out that psychedelic literature has hitherto been male-dominated. I suspect that this will change, is perhaps already changing.

It seems like many of the narrator’s preoccupations – Buddhism, Ketamine, nihilist philosophy, LSD – are attempts to escape from the mindset of modern capitalism, but none of them is successful for long. Was that something that was on your mind when you were writing Threshold? And why do you think these attempts at escape seem doomed to fail?

There was no political agenda in my mind while I was writing Threshold. The narrator, like many of the characters I create, is neck-deep in a world that causes him acute discomfort. The book is an expression of his attempt to endure and even thrive in that world without going under. Ultimately, writing the book is his means – my means – of doing precisely that. The various obsessions that Threshold explores – experiential, sexual, philosophical or pharmacological – may indeed be attempts at escape, but I’m not so sure they’re necessarily doomed to fail. The book is ultimately a document of its own coming into being, and thus is its own celebration: the experiences recounted have all led the narrator to a position wherein he is able to transmute these base materials into art. Of course, this makes for an imperfect, unstable form of redemption: as the narrator admits, when you reach the end of a period of work, ‘You are left alone with yourself, in all the pain from which the work had offered relief’. And so you’re driven to write another book, then another, and as many as you can manage until the end of a life. At which point – this is the hope – you’ll be able to look back over that life and, no matter how troubled or chaotic it was, feel it had not been in vain.

It felt to me like you were describing a period of ageing in which people fall out of love with old heroes – whether that’s Bataille, Cioran or Borges, as described here. Do you think this is an important stage of developing as a writer?

In Threshold, there’s a chapter detailing my fascination with the nihilistic Romanian aphorist E.M. Cioran, which, for a phase of my life, was consuming. He’s a brilliant writer, and what your parents when you were a teenager might have called ‘a bad influence.’ That chapter really was me making a sincere effort to write Cioran out of my system. And it worked: I got over him by writing an account of coming dangerously under his spell, going to Paris to research his life, and locking myself into a life-or-death existential struggle with his sinister intellect. It’s not that I no longer read Cioran: he just doesn’t have me so utterly under the sway of his diabolical worldview.

It’s fun to write about other authors, particularly ones who got under my skin and worked a disturbing effect on me. That said, it’s usually the case that these authors are reflectors through which I write not so much about them as about myself – my desires, quirks, manias, whims. So the final victory is mine – I revenge myself on my masters. For instance, there’s a chapter that’s ostensibly about Roberto Bolaño, but he’s really a pretext for me to write about suicidal fantasies, erotic longings, a journey to the Costa Brava, and a cat named Bobu with whom I had a degrading relationship while living alone in Paris. The chapter about Georges Bataille is likewise a pretext, in this case for me to wander around France, delve into memories of earlier phases of my life, and ultimately launch into a metaphysical flight across the border of death. It’s a case of, That’s enough about George Bataille, let me tell you about me.

I was also drawn to the quote about losing the ‘lust for chaos, destruction and ecstasy that had governed my younger years’. It feels like, despite this change, the narrator of Threshold is again and again drawn back to scenes of chaos and ecstasy. Do you think there’s a problem for the older millennial generation growing up, and putting their lust for chaos behind them?

I don’t want to speak for my or any generation. I can only say that, in my own life, the attraction towards ecstasy, chaos and self-destruction has indeed been a recurring theme. Threshold is in some ways about living on in the consequences – the smouldering ruins – of a life lived in thrall to such an attraction.

It was recently pointed out to me, quite persuasively, that much of the turmoil in my life originates from the collision of a pair of contradictory impulses: a lust for sheer chaos on one hand, and a conservative longing for order on the other.

I don’t think that my life is obviously indicative of any particular sociological or generational trend. I’ve always felt as if I’ve existed in the margins of my generation, a sort of lifelong dropout. Yet at the same time I like to think that by expressing the vagaries of my dropout-existence as searchingly as I can, I stand a good chance of hitting on something universal. The life I’ve lived may seem strange, desperate or unsound to some, but the core stuff that Threshold is concerned with – loneliness, change, hope, lust, anguish, death, friendship, curiosity – is stuff that anyone can relate to.

If you were an Egyptian pharaoh, and had to be buried with a few key objects to take into the next world, what would they be?

I would bring my Bose bluetooth speaker, which comes everywhere with me. It’s sleek and compact, the sound quality is outstanding, the battery lasts for ages, and the poignant robot voice calls me ‘Robert’ whenever I turn it on. I would also bring my NutriNinja smoothie maker that I bought two years ago and have used virtually every morning since. At first my smoothies were baroque affairs, with eight or nine ingredients, but these days I keep it simple: two bananas and some almond milk, and perhaps half an avocado if I want to live on the edge.

Do you have a favourite joke, quotation or proverb?

Since Threshold is peppered with quotations from Nietzsche, I may as well offer another here:

‘To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities – I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not – that one endures.’

What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything).

Greg Baxter’s first book, A Preparation For Death, is a visceral and captivating self-portrait. I’ve read it numerous times and I always come away on one hand admiring the book immensely, and on the other wanting to have a boxing match with the author. I’m currently enduring one of my periodic fixations on Leonard Cohen’s album Songs of Love and Hate, an unnervingly intense confession from a man on the brink: Cohen seems to perform it while holding a gun under his jaw so that you spend the album waiting for the blast. The song ‘Avalanche’ in particular always chills me. It seems to be addressed to Cohen from the projection of his deepest self-torment, manifested as an ugly, crippled, sneering hunchback. ‘Your pain is no credential here, it’s just the shadow, shadow of my wound… It is your turn, beloved, it is your flesh that I wear.’ It feels like being trapped inside the squirming, tortured psyche of a serial killer. Some day I’ll write an essay that draws fascinating parallels between Songs of Love and Hate, Kanye West’s masterpiece Yeezus, and Norman Mailer’s book Advertisements for Myself – all of them extraordinary documents of the American male artist unravelling at the crisis which is also his apex: the glory and carnage of being in one’s mid-thirties, depraved and radiant, ecstatically desperate, loving and hating oneself in a grandiose public self-immolation.

Rob Doyle is a writer from Dublin. His first novel, HERE ARE THE YOUNG MEN, was published in 2014 by Bloomsbury and the Lilliput Press. It was selected as one of Hot Press magazine’s ‘20 Greatest Irish Novels 1916-2016’, and has been made into a film. Rob’s second book, THIS IS THE RITUAL, was published in 2016 to widespread acclaim. He is the editor of the anthology THE OTHER IRISH TRADITION (Dalkey Archive Press), and IN THIS SKULL HOTEL WHERE I NEVER SLEEP (Broken Dimanche Press). He has written for the Guardian, TLS, Vice, Sunday Times, Dublin Review, Observer and many other publications, and he writes a weekly books column for the Irish Times. His new novel, THRESHOLD, is published by Bloomsbury in January 2020. He teaches on the MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Limerick, and lives the rest of the year in Berlin.