Whatever else it is, Threshold is surely the record of a voyage – a book of experience in some quite old-fashioned, powerful sense. It’s replete with the indicators of retrospection, confession, autofiction. Some of the adventures leave the reader with a faint bad taste in the mouth. Possibly they’ve been designed to. “I used to live for hate but now I am often frightened of it,” runs a line on page two, an admission both endearing and disconcerting enough to propel anyone through a book. Sometimes he trolls the reader so expertly it works, sometimes so obviously it doesn’t; sometimes he seems to be effortlessly trolling himself. In the end, whatever you decide about the fictionality of the terrain or the kind of trip Threshold might have taken you on, you also decide that “Rob Doyle” was a worthwhile spirit guide. He’s good at aphorism, though he claims to have disowned it along with Cioran; he’s very good at the comedy of self-aggrandising self-deprecation.
Structured like a travelogue interspersed with epistolary fragments, Thresholdis an autobiographical novel reminiscent of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station. The story of the book’s gestation is incorporated into its narrative, which is composed of a series of discrete anecdotes, liberally embellished with the author’s directionless cogitations. There are some colourful tales of debauchery – including, most memorably, a water-sports session in a Berlin sex club (“I pissed long and hot in his abject face… ‘Danke!’ he rasped.”) – but the plot is secondary.
The itinerant structure keeps things fresh, serving up increasingly wild scenarios, including a game of psychological cat-and-mouse with a Kurdish artist who claims to have slept with two of the 9/11 hijackers in her teens. Added intrigue about Doyle’s purpose comes from interludes giving us the narrator’s half of a correspondence with an ex-lover, recalling his wish “to write a book whose binding tissue is not overt narrative but obsessions, fascinations… visions of my life as it is or might have been”.
Of course Doyle is whip-smart and self-aware and knows all this, as he puts it in one very Geoff Dyer-esque sentence, referring to “the abandoned books that didn’t get written while I was busy documenting the rapturous decline I underwent while I was failing to write them”.
But if he does struggle to commit to another novel then genre-defying work like Threshold will do very nicely to be going on with. As a memoir-in-essays it may not have the galvanic energy of Greg Baxter’s A Preparation for Death, or the self-deprecating wit of Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, but Doyle achieves something more refreshing: by the end of the book he feels like good company with all his contradictions, indulgences and battles against himself.
He has written elsewhere of the Joycean idea of abandoning a place only to reconstruct it in fiction. Eternally seeking the elusive, the out-of-reach, he reflects in a Proustian moment: ‘You sign up for the melancholy of returning the moment you determine to undertake a journey.’ Luckily, there’s always another irresistible art show, another friend to get smashed with, another pointless journey to be relished. Not many books manage to expand your mind, do your head in and set you laughing out loud. This one does, and Doyle’s words sing on the page.
Like much recent autofiction, Threshold perhaps shouldn’t be so compellingly readable, especially given its core theme of drug-taking. Tell a trip, lose a reader, but Doyle’s writing does the opposite, with considerable panache. The novel ends with an exploration of DMT, “the apex of psychedelic drugs … too weird and disturbing even for the open-minded hippy generation”. DMT’s effects take the narrator to the very edge of the ineffable – something Doyle also comes close to achieving for the reader in his boundary-nudging fiction.
Doyle’s novel is a humorous delight – and more thoughtful than the previous scene might suggest. Dublin-born Doyle is a former philosophy student and his novel delves into the mind of a young writer (and slacker) who is travelling the world, thinking about Buddhism, modern society, meditation and drugs. Lots of drugs. You learn a great deal about magic mushrooms, hallucinogenic plants, ketamine and DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine) as you experience his tumultuous pilgrimage.