Fiction Threshold: Rob Doyle
Rob Doyle's new novel Threshold takes the form of 11 colourful auto-fictional essays, charting the author's cultural excursions around the world in search of the meaning of existence, and the next chemical high.
Auto-fiction blurs the line between memoir, autobiography, and fiction. Whereas fiction is entirely made up, and autobiography and memoir usually written by famous people, auto-fiction is fictionalised autobiography that does away with traditional elements of the novel such as plot and character development. In this way, Threshold is an experimental narrative about a thirty-something protagonist called Rob Doyle by, you guessed it, a thirty-something author called Rob Doyle, and on page 27 he puts the genre-explaining to bed and states simply: "For my purposes, a novel is simply a long chunk of prose in which whatever is said to have happened may or may not have actually happened."
Writing in The Guardian, Alex Clark writes that "auto-fiction… requires ego, it demands the bold determination to make a mark". And Rob Doyle certainly attempts to make his mark in this anecdotal recall of a decade spent getting drunk, masturbating and ingesting all manner of psychedelic drugs.
His experiences range from a memorable orgy in a Berlin nightclub to an MDMA-filled sojourn on a houseboat in Kashmir and Ayahuasca sessions in Bogota.
A philosopher prone to self-loathing, and an ageing writer suffering "latent anxiety" and "free-floating dread", he searches for meaning. On a quest to shake off his apathy, and stir himself to write, he follows in the footsteps of famous writers and philosophers, visiting the graves of Samuel Beckett and Emil Cioran, and the haunts of Andre Breton, Georges Bataille and Arthur Schopenhauer. His deliberations on the role of the artist in society are compelling and engaging, infused with wit and emotional intelligence. But on his travels he also faces bleak moments of nihilism and self-disgust, and struggles internally with baser urges, such as lusting after his friend's wife and daughter.
He hopes, that shorn of tedium and banality, he will come "to experience consciousness itself, and the bare fact of being in the world as ineffable, awesome, impregnably mysterious". This is the thrust of his wanderings, and, despite occasional lapses into self-indulgent self-deprecation, he approaches all experiences with an equal measure of healthy scepticism and wide-eyed curiosity, writing with honesty and charm.
As a female, I found his violent and predatory fantasies troubling, which tainted my enjoyment at first. And his perception of middle-aged people (of which I'm one) as boring and uninspiring, hurt just a bit. But by the end of the novel he won me over with his beautiful writing and witty playfulness. His sojourns in the darkest depths of ego are startlingly well-evoked, and if you ever want to know what it's like to take mind-altering drugs but never dared to, well, here's your chance to find out.
In the last chapter he writes: "The book is turning out differently than I anticipated. I've changed as I've written it." True. He matures, almost despite himself, in the course of his literal and metaphorical trips. He softens at the edges.
This book is a psychedelic trip in itself but well worth the ride.