Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury Circus; 316 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Have you ever read a book and then been stumped about how to review it or how to explain it to others?
Rob Doyle’s new “novel” — I use the term lightly because I’m not sure if this is a novel or a memoir or reportage or a series of essays because it certainly feels like all of these things in places — is just like that.
I don’t know how to articulate what Threshold is about. There’s no plot, there are few characters and next to no dialogue. It’s probably best described as a novel of ideas.
I enjoyed reading it and I came away from it feeling as if my grey matter had been deeply stimulated because it got me thinking about all kinds of things, specifically how humans use art, literature, music, drugs and travel to escape themselves, to gain new experiences and to make sense of the world around them.
An ageing narrator
The book is narrated by someone called Rob, who may or may not be the actual author. He’s writing as a middle-aged Irishman looking back on his life, and each self-contained chapter explains a specific incident or time in his 20s and 30s framed around a certain issue.
For example, in the opening chapter headed Mushroom, Rob tells us about his use of magic mushrooms, collected in Dublin’s Phoenix Park where they grow wild, to get high; in Mediterranean, we follow him on his trip to the small Catalan beach town of Blanes to follow in the footsteps of Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, who lived and worked there for a large part of his life until his death in 2003; and in Nightclub he tells us about living in Berlin and being immersed in the hardcore techno club scene.
Sandwiched between each chapter is a one-page letter (or email) in which Rob writes to an unnamed friend, sharing an insight (usually about the writing process) or aphorism.
For as long as you are working, you have a why: when you reach the end of a project, the why dissolves. You are left alone with yourself, in all the pain from which the work had offered relief. But there is another perspective, more comforting and no less valid: with the completion of every book, it gets easier to disappear.
There’s no narrative arc because the stories aren’t necessarily told in chronological order. And yet, for all its breaking of normal “writerly” conventions, this is an imminently readable book. The prose is silky smooth, the voice understated. Occasionally it is shocking (there are many references to sex and drug use, for instance), but on the whole, I found myself swept up in the tales (and the ideas and the facts) revealed here.
It is deeply philosophical and introspective, but the mood is lightened by a playful sense of humour running throughout, although it’s not immediately obvious. You have to read closely to spot the clever “in” jokes and the sly little digs. In a book that is obsessed with recounting dreams, for instance, I couldn’t help but laugh at this line from Henry James, tucked away on page 189, that says: “Tell a dream, lose a reader.”
Nor could I withhold my chuckles when I came across this paragraph about suicide:
There was only one way I would have the balls to kill myself and that was by shooting myself in the skull. That seemed by far the best way of doing it: quick, loud, bloody and — hopefully — painless. All of this was fanciful, though. I could not shoot my skull because I didn’t live in a country where I could acquire a gun. The only country I knew where I’d be able to buy a gun was America, and I could never live there again: I would rather kill myself.
One man’s search for meaning
In essence, Threshold is one man’s search for meaning in a world often devoid of meaning. It’s a very male book, by which I mean it’s clear that Rob navigates a world that is made for him (without fear of falling pregnant, for instance, or being taken advantage of when drunk or high) and it’s sometimes hard to accept that his lack of clear direction in his life is anything other than his own making.
I loved the journey it took me on, including the meta aspects of it, and the cleverness of the writing and the ideas and philosophies presented. It’s a book to mull over, chew on, discuss with others. It’s one of the strangest books I’ve ever read, but it’s also one of the most engaging. Make of that what you will.
Threshold has been shortlisted for this year’s Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award. I still don’t know how to articulate what it is about.
If you liked this book, you might also like:
‘In a Strange Room’ by Damon Galgut: A lush, hypnotic novel that explores longing and desire through the prism of travel.
This is my 1st book for the 2021 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award and my 10th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I was actually sent this book unsolicited by the Australian publisher last year not long after I posted my review of Doyle’s debut novel.