The premise, frankly, doesn’t sound promising. Rob Doyle’s new book is built around 52 short columns he published in The Irish Times a couple of years ago and each is accompanied by a new essay that may or may not be connected to what you’ve just read.
And yet Autobibliography is a captivating journey into the world of reading. It’s about stepping out of comfort zones and about opening the mind to books written long ago, often from faraway cultures.
It’s also a book about Rob Doyle, his personal obsessions and foibles, and anyone who has enjoyed any of his three novels to date will find much to interest them. His girlfriend, the writer Roisin Kiberd, is likely to be among them especially as he casually muses that she is “the smartest person I know and who I often imagine marrying” in an essay to accompany his writings on Philip K Dick’s science fiction novel Valis.
All the books Doyle writes about were published before 2000 and most of them are non-fiction — he says he reads proportionally less fiction in his 30s than he did in his 20s. Practically none of them have a connection to Ireland and a disproportionate number are by French authors.
Anyone hoping for conventional reviews will be disappointed, but Doyle’s approach is much more dynamic. He tends to take a sideways look, finding intrigue in aspects of books that even those who have read them closely might not have seen.
He is excellent on The Fight, Norman Mailer’s bravura slice of gonzo journalism. The book is an exhilarating account of the Ali-Foreman heavyweight clash in Zaire in 1974.
Doyle writes perceptively that it has “all the dramatic tension of a novel even though we know how it’s going to end”.
He is fascinated with Mailer’s ‘cancellation’ “since a literary generation of American Nice Guys derided him and his peers as the Great American Narcissists. With writing his incandescent, though, one can wait confidently for the decrees of public taste to veer back around.”
Valerie Solanas would, doubtless, have adored how Mailer’s legacy is now so frequently traduced. The feminist campaigner hated men intensely, as her SCUM Manifesto laid bare, and Doyle doesn’t hold back: “Solanas writes about men the way Hitler did about Jews or the way Isis fighters do about ‘infidels’.”
SCUM Manifesto provokes an essay on hatred that references Nietzsche and Buddhism. Doyle writes with bracing honesty about how he, too, once felt hate that was “violent and bitter”.
A huge number of books are touched on here. There are few choices with levity at their heart; Doyle is clearly a serious reader and perhaps it’s a reflection of my playful, catholic taste in books that I would have enjoyed occasional excursions into lowbrow fare.
It is to his credit that he shines a light on lesser-known books by well-known writers, so it’s A Room of One’s Own rather than To the Lighthouse when he is riffing on Virginia Woolf, and Play It as It Lays instead of Slouching Towards Bethlehem that generates excellent when writing about Joan Didion. Doyle praises the latter’s “cool, slant, mysterious prose style” and notes that “the swimming pools and beach houses of Didion’s California define a zone of nihilistic dread”. How very true.
There’s a great pleasure in seeing a favourite book get the Doyle treatment. I’ve been telling everyone I know to read The Adversary, Emmanuel Carrère’s incredible account of real-life deception, ever since a friend thrust it into my hands some years ago. Doyle is especially taken with Carrère’s approach: “This is no dry academic pursuit like that of the great American postmodernists who were in vogue a few decades earlier, but a gripping new mode of narration whereby the author declines to pretend he is an invisible witness and reveals the blood on his hands.”
Autobibliography’s great strength is in re-stimulating an interest in once-loved writers. He writes with such élan about Martin Amis’s London Fields that I intend to go straight back to it to see if his contention that it’s his “career-high novel” really stands up. Can it be better than Money?
And he writes with such enthusiasm about Geoff Dyer that you want to immerse yourself in the English author’s books just as thoroughly. He is enraptured by Dyer’s But Beautiful, a book about the great names of jazz and written, apparently, under the influence of cannabis. Doyle’s description is ravishing: “The prose is dulcet and superfine, soloing rapturously alongside the music it invokes.”
I’ve never read anything by Dyer. Thanks to Doyle and his punch-drunk love affair with reading, that’s going to change very soon.
Essays: Autobibliography by Rob Doyle
Swift Press, 256 pages, hardcover €13.99; e-book £6.64