In 2019, when he was living in Berlin, the Irish author Rob Doyle wrote a short weekly column about his favourite books for the Irish Times. The series began with The Unwomanly Face of War, Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history of Soviet war widows, and ended, 51 books later, with The Colossus of Maroussi, Henry Miller’s Greek travel memoir of 1941. In between came, well, everything, from Virginia Woolf to Virginie Despentes, via Carl Jung, Philip K Dick and The Tibetan Book of the Dead, each introduced with unstuffy critical acuity and lapel-grabbing comic hyperbole: “Is it preposterous to suggest that Fyodor Dostoevsky prophesied the election of Donald Trump, Brexit and the seething hate-pits of social media?”
Readers of Doyle’s autobiographical novel Threshold won’t be shocked that these columns, collected in his new book, fall hardest for writers mischievously lugubrious in outlook – Michel Houellebecq, say, or the Romanian author EM Cioran. Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents gets a thumbs-up for its “honest theoretical acknowledgment of the unbridled aggression, depravity and lust for annihilation that constitute the dirtiest secret of the individual in society”, while Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals “might be one of the greatest horror novels ever written”; Joris-Karl Huysmans’s À rebours, “a kind of 19th-century American Psycho” about a sickly aristocrat’s outré self-help programme, which Doyle read while tripping on psychoactive cacti in Bolivia, is plain “evil”.
Inserted between these snippets of high-grade consumer advice are longer, looser reflections written upon Doyle’s return to Ireland early in 2020, a visit that became a long-term stay on account of you know what. Thus does the book morph into a Covid-era tour of Doyle’s psyche, as he reflects while stuck at home on a roving youth spent in druggy squats and house shares in London and Paris, bumming around Asia and Latin America with the cash earned from sorting supermarket coupons on a Dublin industrial estate.
Uppermost on his mind is sex, relegated by the pandemic to a memory, save for half-hearted clicks on PornHub (“like a nightmarish roam through an infinite wet market”), to say nothing of a lockdown-breaking “amatory visit” to his girlfriend. Amid moist-eyed recollections of a three-way at a Berlin nightclub or the Vietnamese lover he followed to San Francisco, we’re told how Doyle didn’t attempt to be faithful, even in a serious relationship. In the darkest days of 2020, he lost his nerve while drafting a tongue-in-cheek Facebook post that he feared his friends might take seriously, because it actually wasn’t wholly light-hearted: “If there’s a silver lining to all this, it’s that the new generation won’t get to enjoy the freedoms I made such a beast of myself exploiting.”
Doyle’s self-guying impulses make him good company on the page. When he imagines writing a book such as Thomas Bernhard’s My Prizes, in which the Austrian writer recalls his experience of accepting various awards (Doyle’s version would be made up of “acerbic speeches to mark the literary prizes I did not win”), the ensuing rant about “some schmoozing chump win[ning] the latest popularity contest with her bullshit book” is funny, not only bitter, in part because Doyle recognises he’s no outsider. He talks of an ex-lover who is a lauded French novelist and says Geoff Dyer (a heavy influence) still texts him about an epic night out they once shared; Rachel Kushner told him that, inspired by an idea about a Houellebecq scholar he gave up after 10,000 words, she’s going to make the French writer a character in her forthcoming novel.
Contradiction, or many-sidedness, is one of the pleasures of this charmingly provocative enterprise, you suspect for the author as much as for us (the catalogue of his drug intake, for one, left me amazed that he had managed to read so much, let alone write). But if the navel-gazing rubs you the wrong way – as Doyle well knows it might, handily providing a preemptive three-page list of objections to his own work – there’s always the consumer advice: Arthur Koestler’s first novel, The Gladiators and Marguerite Duras’s Practicalities are just two of the books I’m itching to get hold of after reading what he says about them and it’s not the least of Doyle’s paradoxes that this self-declared hater should be so infectious an enthusiast.