Electric Irish DMT Test

Threshold BY Rob Doyle. New York: Bloomsbury. 336 pages. $26.
Cover of Threshold

Rob Doyle is a twentieth-century boy. His characters are monologous young men who get high and chase literary grouches with an eye out for that high-modernist whale, the epiphany. Many of Doyle’s contemporaries—literary men in their late thirties—confine themselves to the cramped emotional tone afforded to those invested in the internet’s panoramic view and its plausibly crushing Bad News. But Doyle looks back: His drugs and bands and writers are pre-9/11 specimens, across all of his books. The characters in his 2014 debut novel, Here Are the Young Men, are teen grads in Dublin off their faces, smack-dab in the middle of an economic upturn they ignore, listening to Joy Division and ’90s techno in 2003. “We bought sixteen cans of Dutch Gold and drank them throughout the rest of the day, smoking joints from Jen’s ounce of hash, listening to Mogwai and Leonard Cohen and Radiohead.” (The movie is due this year.) Threshold, Doyle’s latest novel, is a stereo diary, with our narrator dashing off short progress notes to a friend while writing the story of someone (who seems a lot like Doyle) telling the story of his twenties. Doyle does a lucid little rustle through all the greatcoat-on-the-heath mugging and druggy catastrophizing that delusional young men go for. Threshold is a bright review of both the last century and of the utility of juvenile scorn. Because when the light goes on and you haven’t actually killed yourself, you have to choose. You can stay in your garret, lit up and clacking away, or you can come out into the street and sing along to that corny and inescapable twentieth-century hit: Why am I here?

One of Doyle’s favorite subjects is the writer who overdoses on his (always his) scorn for the masses. In his second book, the story collection This Is the Ritual, Doyle invents three of these: John-Paul Finnegan, Killian Turner, and Jean-Pierre Passolet. The Turner character disappears mysteriously at the age of thirty-seven in a cloud of half facts, glamorously underpublished. Passolet—who is responsible for one perfectly titled book, European Graveyards—castrates himself as a young adult and, many years later, dies alone in his apartment, a corpse for the cats. Finnegan, alongside a character named Rob, rides a ferry named Ulysses, fuming and ranting against the Irish “penguins of depravity” riding on the boat. Finnegan (who is on a boat named Ulysses, which is leaving a wake—get it?) is vexed because these “twats” haven’t read James Joyce, or so he assumes. Finnegan’s mist of genius eventually dissipates, his loathing turning inward to the point that he can barely write. Another unnamed writer is unable to produce more than two sentences about Nietzsche over the course of a year. This blend of rage and impotence is baked into the writers, real and fictional, who people Doyle’s books. By the time we get to Threshold, these writers and their fancified negations seem like they might be, just maybe, no more than teenage kicks carried into adulthood, where they go awry.

The protagonist of Threshold goes through a color wheel of drugs during his twenties and limps into his thirties looking for something. At one point, he buys an expensive plane ticket to find the grave of platinum grouch Emil Cioran in the Montparnasse cemetery. The Romanian writer is probably best known for The Trouble with Being Born, a collection of nihilist fortune cookies like: “An idea, a being, anything which becomes incarnate loses identity, turns grotesque.” Doyle’s recently completed Irish Times column considered books from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Out of all the pamphleteers and full-blooded dystopians, Cioran might be his favorite. “EM Cioran is the most addictive writer I’ve ever encountered” is how Doyle opens his review of The Trouble with Being Born. The Doyle-y narrator of Threshold is addicted to more than Cioran, though. He begins the book gathering magic mushrooms from a public park in Dublin and consulting Terence McKenna, who “insists that ‘the mushroom religion is actually the generic religion of human beings.’” The narrator’s pitch for mushrooms is better: “The psychedelic experience, I have long felt, is so astonishing, opens up such startling vistas of beauty and otherness, that to live and die without knowing it is comparable to never having encountered literature, or travelled to another continent, or attempted to communicate in a foreign language.”

Drugs, in Threshold, are not symptomatic of larger processes. Drugs are things people take to modify their individual experiences. For a book full of people getting absolutely faded, again and again, there’s very little Dutch courage or yo-ho-ho partying about the partying. Plenty of the binges end without comment or in tears. Doyle only waxes optimistic about the “numinous and profoundly weird experiences” of mushrooms to yage tea and DMT, the active element in ayahuasca. After bouncing through South America and England, Doyle/narrator ends up back in Ireland, vaping DMT powder with his friend Matt. Partially inspired by filmmaker Gaspar Noé’s experiences on the drug while making Enter the Void, Doyle and his friends attempt to titrate the perfect dosage. On 50 mg, Matt feels it, hard. “Information, noise and imagery had come hurtling at him with bewildering speed and density as he was propelled through a ‘wormhole,’” where he encounters “intricately patterned machinery.”

The narrator calls himself “a sceptical person, allergic to deluded and wishful thinking, the saccharine credulities of the New Age and the self-serving beliefs of religion,” but stays open to what the drugs make happen. “The DMT rush is a genuinely gnostic experience: it can only be known directly, and when known directly it cannot be denied. Lived experience indicates that the drug is not psychedelic, not ‘mind-manifesting’ at all: it opens on to an abyssal and disturbing beyond.” He is looking to drugs and books for transcendence, not annihilation, but he has to untangle the fact that his heroes and his substances of choice tend to conflate the two. It is this uncoupling that makes the drugs in Threshold more than a buzz, or at least an attempt to find what’s behind the buzz.

In Paris, a friend named Kelly visits the narrator with the intention of recreating André Breton’s Nadja, with photos. It seems to go well, possibly because Paris is already high as hell. The city has “different psychic atmospheres that you can feel changing within the space of a few metres,” according to Kelly. Their wind through Paris contains the basic, necessary elements of Threshold: a drug, a dead writer, and someone who maybe is or isn’t sleeping with the narrator. After way too much acid, we get period sex, liquid shit, a Swarovski crystal bird, visceral hallucinations, sobbing, and walking in the rain. But the only thing the narrator calls a “mess” is a very long and obscure Breton sentence. He writes, “Perhaps such tormented syntax was a surrealist strategy to derail the reader, sabotaging reason and loosing the forces of the unconscious. Or perhaps Breton just didn’t write very well.” Breton leads the narrator to the mighty translator Richard Howard who leads him back to Cioran.

The narrator makes his pilgrimage to Paris, Cioran’s adopted city, and stays with his old friend Zoé, who he seems closer to than anyone else in the book. There is brief cocaine use with some theater types and a lot of frustration around not writing about Cioran. Doyle is revisiting Cioran, it seems, to revisit himself. “And yet, Cioran had managed to get inside me. His unremitting scepticism, his bitterness raised to the status of a cosmic principle, now felt like my own, whether I wanted them or not.” At first, the cosmic principle seems like the nut of that sentence, but it’s the word “not.”

It’s the bitterness that dissolves the bond between Doyle and his beloved twentieth-century crabcakes and their glorious isolation. Cioran’s work is, as he puts it again in Threshold, “addictive,” but not in the right way. “What had Cioran ever given to my life, other than pessimism and discouragement?” What he ends up valuing in Cioran is not his “spiritual suicide,” but “the lucid insistence that every mania we indulged in, whether political or metaphysical, would only mire us deeper in agony.” The struggle, for Doyle, is distinguishing between mania and happiness, and Zoé delivers the line that holds Threshold together: “We are all deep in a hell, each moment of which is a miracle.” Doyle’s narrator, as much as he is drawn to literary bile, excoriation, and hopelessness, seems like a fairly reliable friend and, in general, not a difficult collaborator. Perhaps the threshold Doyle is looking for, before anything, is the passageway into connection and away from isolation, the first step in suicide, spiritual or physical.

Doyle tackled fifty-two books for the Irish Times in 2019. Each gets three or four paragraphs; the sum total may come out this year as a short book called Autobibliography. In the entry on Woodcutters, Doyle writes that Thomas Bernhard’s “literary project was a locomotive fuelled by spleen. Life disgusted him. This might be merely annoying, like the moping of the heavy metal fan at school, if it were not for Bernhard’s funniness.” Other titanic mopes and druggies are in here, like Houellebecq, Amis, Bataille, Despentes, McKenna, Bolaño, Ballard, and Dostoyevsky, and you’re as well off with Doyle as anyone else if you need to brush up on these writers. This project is most appealing when Doyle hoists himself up onto the next shelf, the bit that comes after a youth spent in sulky isolation. He’s smart enough to know that it’s Cioran’s petulance that consigns him to semi-obscurity, not literary prejudice. Shitting on people is for teens of all ages, and Doyle is drifting away from that. Of Marilynne Robinson, he writes that her “patent sanity and earthed, life-loving conservatism make me trust her.” In an entry on Camus’s The Fall, Doyle writes that “regarded from the 21st century, existentialism, with its trench-coated, smoke-veiled fixation on cosmic indifference, seems like the troubled adolescence of humankind: it was a phase we were going through.” I look forward to Doyle regarding the twenty-first century, eyes front.

Sasha Frere-Jones is a writer and musician living in New York.