Wednesday 22 November 2017

Books: Short stories of bleak alienation without saving grace of humanity

Fiction: This is the Ritual, Rob Doyle, Bloomsbury, hdbk, 208 pages, €25.50

Amusing himself: Dublin author Rob Doyle.
Amusing himself: Dublin author Rob Doyle.
This is the Ritual, a short story collection by Rob Doyle

Titling his classic 1963 study of the short story The Lonely Voice, Frank O'Connor noted that the typical characters to be found in short stories were "outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of societies" and that the finest of stories evoked an "intense awareness of human loneliness".

That remains largely true, though the contemporary Irish story tends to be even more bleak in its depiction of estrangement than you'll find in O'Connor's own stories or in those of such distinguished successors as William Trevor and John McGahern.

Indeed, it's hard to think of characters more alienated than those you'll encounter in this first collection by Dublin author Rob Doyle, whose 2014 debut novel, Here Are the Young Men, was much praised for its savage take on drug-fuelled male excesses and transgressions in Celtic Tiger Ireland.

This all-pervasive sense of alienation from society's norms is even more marked in these short stories and its characters are even more filled with loathing, whether towards themselves or others. "I'm a total fucking wreck", the narrator of 'The Turk Inside' informs us, while for the protagonist of 'Mexico Drift' "nothing had ever mattered and why should it now".

But if most of the book's narrators and main characters are dysfunctional human beings, either maimed by inertia or wallowing in their callousness, the places they inhabit don't fare much better - London, for instance, being viewed as a city where people "stamp on other people and they laugh about it, never any remorse. It's horrible, unbearable".

Sex in most of these stories is brutally uncaring and women hardly get a look-in as a succession of thoroughly dislikeable males indulge their neuroses, fantasies and self-hatreds, and after a while the viewer may protest that surely there's more to life than the cruelly jaundiced view of it that's being presented here.

Opting for such unappealing narrators is, of course, the author's prerogative, though it's hard not to feel that, by so doing, he has forfeited the empathy of many readers. (Donal Ryan's recent collection, A Slanting of the Sun, is in some ways just as bleak but with a saving sense of humanity).

Not all of the stories are so determinedly repellent, though those that aren't mostly involve inventions about made-up writers - 'Exiled in the Infinite' is a supposedly scholarly essay (complete with footnotes) about "Ireland's vanished literary outlaw" Killian Turner, while 'Jean-Pierre Passolet, a Reminiscence' purports to tell the story of a once-revered French novelist and essayist who in later life succumbed to "the miasma of loneliness" and was discovered by London neighbours "decomposing in his armchair".

The author is clearly amusing himself with these cod biographies and appreciations (a further three also feature), though the reader may not feel so diverted and may well feel entirely baffled by the longest story, 'Outposts', which is divided into four sections, none of whose fragments made any sense to this reviewer.

"There's no moral to this story", the enervated narrator of 'The Turk Inside' says at the outset, "no kind of comeuppance at all", and then he goes on to relate his tawdry tale of sleeping with and then losing an exotic dancer in London.

But then there's no comeuppance to be found in any of these stories, or indeed any real reckoning to be had at all. That's life, the author would probably retort, but still...

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