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Threshold: Rob Doyle returns with a psychotropic odyssey through sex, drugs, and philosophy

Fiction Threshold Rob Doyle Bloomsbury Circus, hardback, 336 pages, €18

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Magical literature: Rob Doyle's protagonist, also called Rob, shares many biographical details with the author

Magical literature: Rob Doyle's protagonist, also called Rob, shares many biographical details with the author

Threshold by Rob Doyle

Threshold by Rob Doyle

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Magical literature: Rob Doyle's protagonist, also called Rob, shares many biographical details with the author

Around the time of the release of his debut novel Here are the Young Men in 2014, Dublin author Rob Doyle remarked in an interview that after years abroad in Asia, South America, the US, Sicily, et al, he had yet to fully catch up with what was happening in contemporary Irish literature. The then-31-year-old also expounded on how most of the lessons he'd learned in life had been from literature. The rest, he added, had been via "relationships and psychedelic plants".

In the time since, Doyle has certainly sat apart from the usual suspects in Ireland's literary fiction elite. He put out a short-story collection (2016's This is the Ritual) and edited an excellent primer on experimental Irish literature for Dalkey Archive Press in 2018 (a choice nugget called The Other Irish Tradition). Threshold feels like the culmination of the Crumlin young-gun's manoeuvres to date, and if you thought the disclosed information in that interview was bolshie hyperbole, think again.

While it lacks the outright bleakness of Here are the Young Men, Threshold maintains that level of intensity and athleticism that put Doyle on the map in the first place. Replacing the sepia and charcoal of his debut is something much more psychotropic and primary coloured as hedonism, disillusionment, angst and awakening channel themselves through a diet of drugs, sex, art and philosophy.

You wouldn't call it a memoir, despite the protagonist being a "Rob" who shares many biographical details with the author - see opening paragraph - and the way it unspools an inner monologue so full-frontal and detailed that it feels like it could only have come from a self-penned diary confessional. And yet there is a Teflon surface to Threshold that gradually untethers it from any ideas about a novel, a character and an arc to trace them on. These things may or may not have happened in real life. What matters is that we are reading about them so they are happening here.

What can be verified is that Doyle's essayistic autofiction is as vivid, intoxicating (and, our narrator might argue, mind-expanding) as the very substances that this avatar spends much of their time pursuing, ingesting and recounting. That curse of the twenty-something man, of cutting himself loose to see how far he can go because he is between lives. The constant craving for stimulation, self-administered either chemically or sexually, burning away as the world around him fails to cough up any answers. The writers and artists he follows on pilgrimages become either enablers to decadence or mere McGuffins.

One companion says to him: "It's only the literature that is magical. The authors are just vessels. Even their lives are not that interesting to me." It is one of a few knowing winks that Doyle makes at us. Another comes later as ambient psychedelia infects reality at micro-dosage levels. Here, Doyle, "Rob", and a hilarious acquaintance from the past, start to slip through one another. Or did we imagine that?

The trips themselves - courtesy of mushrooms, acid, and in the grand kaleidoscopic finale, the notorious DMT - are rendered here in rather spellbinding shapes and colours, which is not something you often get to say about druggy lit. There is also a type of compassion in it, and learned wisdom that manages to keep a hold of things like vulnerability and humanity, without which a saga like Threshold would seem like a stunt.

As an added bonus, it's also very funny. Our narrator can accept and laugh at their own tendency to occasionally disappear up themselves. Again, it is a vital component that this otherwise drug-addled and navel-gazing account is able to lean upon.

Rob is a culture bore, but so spry and considered are his riffs on everyone from Houellebecq to Bolano and the excursions he takes into high-concept visual art that you can't help but follow. You enjoy both the intellectual workout as well as the sudden deflation brought about by all manner of bizarre anomalies in the supporting cast, from dotty lovers to "touched" drug buddies, all of whom tread a genius line between profound and laughable that is arguably the great masterstroke of Threshold. Anyone who has been to Berlin, meanwhile, will enjoy our hero's soiree at the Berghain.

Not only the best work to date from a writer who gets better and better with each release, but also a unique, engrossing and strangely thrilling way to shake this new year into existence and make it tingle with promise.

Indo Review