When it comes to reading in an emergency, in a moment of crisis and uncertainty, comfort seems to be the order of the day — old favorites, regressive pleasures, cozy classics.
What happens if they fail you? Mine have (et tu, Wodehouse?), so I am here to champion the opposite: the enlivening, more absorbing distractions of disagreement, argument and pure pique, of being profitably at odds with what you are reading; the deep diversion of a good, cleansing quarrel, especially with a book that is game and gleefully provocative. “Threshold,” a nettlesome new novel — surly, ambitious, frequently annoying — has been my treasured companion of late.
Zachary Leader’s biography of Saul Bellow contained the indelible fact that one of Bellow’s trusty modes of seduction was to read aloud to women from his own work for hours at a time (horrified italics mine). It’s the sort of detail that can inspire smug pity for the past: Who would attempt such a gesture now? What woman would tolerate it?
I had yet to meet Rob Doyle.
Rob — the loafer and the mope, the impressively successful Lothario and pretentious little troll — is the protagonist of this book, which could be called autofiction (the author is also named Rob Doyle), anti-woke polemic or obsessive riff. It isn’t much interested in classification — in fact, it would rather like to annihilate pointless distinctions outright, much like the character himself, who is on a fervent spiritual quest with the aid of acid, meditation, magic mushrooms and ayahuasca.
“The idea was that, by gaining access to the weirder potentialities of consciousness, my basic stance towards existence would be altered: shorn of the tedium and banality,” Rob tells us. “I hoped I could come to experience consciousness itself.”
Or at least shirk work for a long spell, and run from his roots: a charmless childhood in Ireland, which he depicts with characteristic delicacy as “a backwater of banal, misshapen people.” Rob drifts, from Paris to Thailand, Croatia and Sicily. He overdoses on ketamine in New Delhi and smokes DMT in Ireland, which inspires his most delirious visions. DMT is a psychedelic that condenses a six-hour ayahuasca trip into 10 mind-melting minutes. (“You can still be an atheist up to 40 milligrams,” Doyle writes.)
Every time his passport is stamped, a new girlfriend, another pliant, unnamed creature materializes at his side, endlessly willing to loiter with him at the graves of his literary heroes (the usual suspects: Cioran, Bataille) and let him drone on about his despair and indecision. Shall he write the “great Berlin Techno novel”? The “great backpacker dropout novel”? A novel of “sex, death and clubbing in post-Bataclan Paris”?
Are you wincing with irritation yet? Good; irritation is this narrator’s specialty. He’d like to be “a hate figure, a Shylock,” but he wonders if he has the nerve. For a time he used social media as a pressure valve, raining scorn on “the trendy sentiments and masturbatory indignations that cascaded so risibly down my screen.” He suppurates with rage, especially at those who have reduced art to a variety of social work. “Painfully woke fare had left me craving art whose intentions were purely corrosive, art that went against democracy and virtue, glorified evil, wallowed in destruction and chaos, art whose only dictate was hostility to the notion that art should ameliorate, edify, mold better citizens.”
Rob is a relic of sorts, the kind of character you’d once reliably encounter in a Martin Amis novel, the angry, ambitious young man whose literary and sexual ambitions are coiled together, the type of character Henry Miller made famous and who now just as often appears as a figure of gentle satire (as in Adelle Waldman’s “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P” or Andrew Martin’s “Early Work”). Doyle enjoys poking fun at Doyle, his habit of making sure his books are stocked at various bookstores, his dour pomposity. At one point, Rob embarks on a sadomasochistic relationship with a woman; for a safe word, they settle on “creative nonfiction.”
Speaking of Miller, there is a character in “Tropic of Cancer,” a writer who is notorious in his circle for concealing what he is reading, lest his friends figure out his influences. Doyle, the novelist, has the opposite problem. Large swaths of “Threshold” — the would-be writer making pilgrimage to the homes of his heroes, in order to do anything but write — feel beholden to “Out of Sheer Rage,” Geoff Dyer’s affectionate tribute to procrastination, via an attempted biography of D. H. Lawrence. Sections in which Rob haunts museums hoping for an “aesthetically meaningful experience” feel heavily indebted to Ben Lerner’s novels, in one of which a character is tormented that he is incapable of a “profound experience of art.” At another point, it is one of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s most famous passages that is channeled as Rob scribbles in his notebook “about how civilization forbids me from acting on my violent urges (I smile, shake hands), so my instincts wither inside me, making me unhealthy.” Still other scenes recall Milan Kundera.
For all Rob’s bluster and desire to shock, his pilgrim’s progress brings him to a place of calm; age proves more effective than drugs in challenging his premises: how safe it is to sneer, how much more risky to create. He begins to regard his cynicism and jadedness as a “kind of defeat, a death in life without dignity or valor.” We leave this creature of posturing and alienation at book’s end surrounded by friends, wildly euphoric (courtesy of DMT). “There was an ease in thinking nothing matters, the whole Western nihilism rap,” Doyle writes. “It’s so much scarier to think that everything matters, every little thing is of the utmost consequence.”