Saturday 14 December 2019

Books: A smart and daring work from our newest cult writer

This is the Ritual, Rob Doyle, Bloomsbury €16.99

Author: Dubliner Rob Doyle has published his second book.
Author: Dubliner Rob Doyle has published his second book.

JP O' Malley

As a literary tribe, Irish fiction writers are obsessed with subtlety. Underplaying words, within a distinctive musicality, is almost a national pastime. Even our most talented of literary stars tend to equate appearing as lyrical poets on the page as the most dignified route to becoming respectable, prize-winning wordsmiths. This constant emphasis on cadence at all costs tends to put certain subjects off limits much of the time.

One would be hard pressed to name, for instance, any Irish writer of recent years as brutally frank in their descriptions of drug-taking, sexual proclivities and the consumption of pornography as, say, Irvine Welsh or Bret Easton Ellis.

That is, until Rob Doyle, who seems to be carving out a niche for himself as a type of cult writer that is a rarity in Irish culture.

"Trying to write well is vanity and nothing other than vanity," a frustrated novelist declares in the opening story of This is the Ritual, Doyle's second book in just under two years. In his impressive debut novel Here Are the Young Men, Doyle depicted a bunch of indulgent, hedonistic Dublin youths, caught up in the debauchery of the Celtic Tiger years, who figured out quickly that there was little more than an existential crisis to be found at the end of their drug-fuelled weekend benders.

Despair, the sheer pointlessness of existence and existential nihilism all still feature as staple themes here. As does philosophy about philosophy, an obsession with sophisticated novelists of a European persuasion, drug-taking, suicidal loneliness, Joyce and Beckett, pornography and meditations on the definition of madness.

To call Doyle's latest book a short story collection - even though technically it may be just that-is misleading. It is more of a philosophical treatise: a celebration of farce, short histories of obscure writers you've never heard of (and who may or may not be real) and an exercise in allowing abstract, modernist flash fiction explore the imagination.

Sure, there are a number of straightforward narratives here that flow with some semblance of normality. And Doyle is certainly capable of serious emotional depth in his prose.

For example, in Barcelona, we follow the sexual escapades of Alicia, a 29-year-old Dublin woman who finds herself working as a waitress in a dead-end job, which appears to be a distraction from her search for personal identity.

In No Man's Land, we meet a disillusioned young man suffering from a nervous affliction, who spends his days walking aimlessly through a Dublin council estate, talking to a fellow wanderer, drinking cans of cheap lager, and discussing Friedrich Nietzsche.

Nietzsche, it should be stated, is all over this book. There is even a story called On Nietzsche, where the author explains why he intends to write a biography of the philosopher. Actually, most of the time this book is really a book about other books.

It's in the middle section of the collection, though, that Doyle's work really comes into its own. Here, we are treated to four marvellous pieces of short flash fiction. These push language to its moral and technical limits: acting like a wide-angle camera lens of the wandering mind in the midst of anxious dreams and fantasies. Reading this section, I was reminded of the short story collection Leaving The Sea by the American writer Ben Marcus, which employs a similar narrative technique.

Questioning the very reliability of fictional realism is a recurring theme too. In one story, the author reminds us that "it is entirely possible that most of what is here bears no reflection to the events that took place in reality."

In other instances, Doyle appears, briefly, as a character in his own story.

Such play-acting with form, narrative and voice and his questioning of the credibility of an omniscient author has similarities with the work of the postmodern Russian novelist Andrei Bitov.

Indeed, Doyle's willingness to push the envelope of art into the dark depths of experimentation ensures no subjects are off limits. In Anus-Black Sun we read about a young man coming home from a drug-induced evening in London to watch a pornographic film that appears to transform into a weird art installation.

It would, of course, be easy to berate Doyle as an author who is going for the cheap shot here, using the shock factor to gain notoriety. But to make such value judgements would be to completely misunderstand the length, breadth, depth and brilliance of his artistic vision.

This is the Ritual is a masterstroke in experimental short fiction brimming with ideas, vulgarity and intelligence. And Ireland has just gained a cult author of exceptional talent.

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