If it’s not broken – I chanted silently in rhythm to our steps – then break it. If it’s broken, don’t fix it. If it’s fixed, break it again, break it more, wreck it. Wreck everything, and for no reason whatsoever…
Rob Doyle’s novel Here Are The Young Men is about four male teenagers who have just finished the Leaving Certificate and fill their free summer with drink, drugs and eventually violence. It’s a ripping narrative descent into a nihilistic void that offers no answers for a reader in search of them.
This is territory that other writers like Irvine Welsh, Bret Easton Ellis and Hunter S Thompson have demarcated clearly but Doyle’s voice is an alive and pressing Irish addition to this hedonistic literary gang. Many will dismiss the book because of the nature of the content, at times comparisons with what Coleridge called the “motiveless malignity” of Iago in Othello are easily made as the violence is pure evil, and evil for evil’s sake alone, but to dismiss it as a result would be to miss the writing which bristles with a clarity and force of will that has caught the attention of the literary world.
Meeting Doyle at his Stoneybatter home, after turning off the quays on my bike and climbing Arbour Hill I passed by a shop front with the letter J in blue illuminating the window. This is The Joinery arts space, which is sadly closing its doors this weekend but this remains an artistically vibrant area. Down the street opposite, on the corner of Sitric Road, is Lilliput Press, the famed independent Irish book publisher run by Anthony Farrell who together with Bloomsbury have published Doyle’s debut.
A couple of streets away I’m greeted by the author at his front door. He is standing on a step above me and appears huge. It is not an illusion; he is very tall. He has the same imposing stature as his Bloomsbury stable mate Will Self. It is an achievement for a debut novelist to be published by a major house with such luminaries as Self, whom he has met and is surprisingly taller than.
I am neither tall nor luminous. Thankfully the interview will take place in chairs – the great leveller of the first world.
Over coffee I notice on the table various books, papers and notepads. I see he is reading Norman Mailer’s biography A Double Life written by J Michael Lennon, “What a fucked up life. So mad and entertaining,” he remarks. There is also a copy of Gore Vidal’s essays on a shelf close-by. We talk about the infamous head-butt, the rivalry between the two authors and Doyle is surprised that Vidal’s fiction is not more widely read these days.
It must have been a validation for you that the novel spoke to female readers as well as a young male audience?
“Because it is a novel very much about young masculinity in crisis and a male world, I wasn’t sure how it would be received by women. But for that very reason I was hoping it would appeal to female readers because it was shining a light on something that isn’t talked about with full honesty. There is always the fear that the more garish aspects would be taken as some sort of misogynistic intent but luckily and correctly it wasn’t taken that way at all.
“Look it’s not a comfortable novel. It was disturbing to write and it should be disturbing to read. I want to make people uncomfortable because I can only really respect a book if it doesn’t spare my emotions and my feelings. And this was the book I had to write at the time, I had to be this aggressive and barbed because that’s what I’d seen.”
A few days after I’d finished the novel I was walking around town and found myself imaging the spots where horrific scenes had happened in the book. Doyle even confirmed to me that I wasn’t wrong in where I suspected one of the events to have been fictionally set. He said when he returned to Dublin, after he’d written the book, he’d gone to that spot that he’d lived in fictionally for months while writing that scene from London. Another time the events of the book whooshed back to me as a mother walked down the street with her son who was disabled – my upset was visceral.
Being a published author is a visible relief to Doyle, he’s the classic eight year over night success story. When I ask him about this he exhales deeply and smiles.
“Yeah, I wrote in pure obscurity for five years. It’s a real relief. It starts to become a bit humiliating. You’re labouring away at this noble task of writing but you do think, you know, is it ever going to be acknowledged? Every writer has that period of obscurity and goes through that. But then hopefully sooner or later – hopefully sooner rather than later – it pays off.
“Having the support structure of a decent publisher around you who is going to get your ideas out into the world in the smoothest shape possible. That’s very satisfying because that just means you can give yourself totally to the craziness of writing and to the work of writing.”
Sitting on the table under the thick Mailer bio is the draft of This Is The Ritual. This is Doyle’s collection of short stories set to be published in 2016 by both Lilliput and Bloomsbury as part of his two book contract. He picks it up and thumbs through the manuscript.
“I wouldn’t write a book like Here Are The Young Men now and that’s ok because you don’t necessarily want to be repeating yourself. You want to be moving forward all the time, changing and developing as a writer. Now I look at it and my relationship with it is just one of pride. That was a straight A-Z linear narrative. And I needed to write that. To prove to myself and the world that I could do that. Now I want to write something different.”
How did you decide which short stories you’d include for This is The Ritual?
“I’ve been laying the stories out on the floor here trying to get the order correct and driving myself a bit nuts. Nearly half of these stories have been published as short stories in Gorse, the Dublin Review and various other publications. I knew those ones were strong. Then I had some new ones. Whatever you write most recently tends to loom largest and your style has developed.
“My favourites are the ones written this year. Outposts is the strangest thing in there. It is not going to be everyone’s … but I completely love it. It’s fragmented and experimental. That story came out of a boredom with straight narrative. I just couldn’t do it for a period. I’d done it for four years with the novel but now I wanted to write in a way that was more random, plucking pieces of narrative from here and there – radical juxtapositions. Then ordering them in a way that resonates.”
The abandoning of the normal narrative might have something to do with the way we read on the internet and daily now.
“I feel that people are resistant to the way things are changing when as a writer you don’t have to be. My own imagination has already changed and instead of fighting that you can acknowledge that this is symptomatic of a more general condition – this internet explosion of concentration. It is neither good nor bad, it just is. So you think what can I do with that? How can I use that? As a reader I love fragments and aphorisms so I want to go with that as a writer and see where that takes me at an intuitive level. Prose is the vehicle, not novels. Prose can fit into all sorts of different forms and experimenting with it is a way of trying to get at a greater form of readability and accessibility.
“Experimentalism can be seen or interpreted as increased difficulty but it can be the opposite and by finding ways to convey meaning and use language in more accessible ways for people who are bored or are unable to interest themselves in the 19th century narrative arc. But I veer away from the extremist views on this, there is room for both formats – the novel as we know it and new forms that entertain in new ways. The writer will always have recourse to words whatever happens to the novel or the imagination or the way we interact with the world through technology. Sebald said, ‘The novel is not my medium, prose is my medium.’ So the writer will always have to find a way to write no matter what happens the form.”
After he has submitted his final draft of the short story collection he can clear his desk and immerse himself in a whole new creative process, he is restless: “I believe in ambition in art. I respect people who take risks with their art rather than repeat the same thing. Even if I tried I couldn’t repeat the things that I’ve done. I couldn’t sustain the interest or the energy. The noble failures, that’s what I admire. Not that I’m trying to fail with the next thing. But when you succeed with one thing it gives you a confidence. You can be more justifiably ambitious with what you do next.”
The success of Doyle’s debut will allow him to commit himself fully to the ‘work of writing’.
“My work of writing…I don’t have a version of the puritan style of ‘I get up every morning, I sit at the desk and I write for four hours…’, I mean I tried it like that and it doesn’t really work for me. When I have something to write I’ll put my whole day into it. Twelve hours, no problem. Sometimes though you don’t necessarily have something to say and that’s ok. I don’t see a need to constantly churn, there are a lot of books in the world that don’t really need to be there.
“What I like to do is be hovering around – taking notes, reading, writing essays, editing different bits – but always have my work there, ready to write. I like to hang around my writing, to be on edge. To be there but not to force it.
When the interview finishes I decide to pay a visit to Lilliput Press. I lock my bike to a nearby fence as a cat meows insouciantly at me from the other side. This is the small, but thriving, publishing house that showed faith in Rob Doyle’s debut novel and got it published. Lilliput has been doing that for many years. There’s a warm glow from inside the corner premises as I approach. A sign on the gate tells me to enter via a lane two doors down and ring the bell.
Inside Anthony Farrell and the Lilliput staff are busy preparing for their Christmas bash that evening. They are hanging decorations, putting up lights and laying out wine glasses for their literary guests. A giant poster of Donal Ryan, Lilliput’s literary star from 2013, sits atop a counter. The bookshelves house Kevin Myers’ new book on World War I, Fergus Mulligan’s profile of railwayman William Dargan together with Ryan’s The Spinning Heart and many more interesting Irish titles. Desmond Hogan has a section of beautifully produced books: his two novels, The Ikon Maker and Leaves on Grey, are there; also a book of his short stories and a collection of travel writings from 1976-1991. He is another Irish author whose work is championed by Farrell and Lilliput. Added to the shelves is Here Are The Young Men. The cover depicts a youth with his hood up; his eyes aren’t visible. Covering them is an image of a bleak Dublin with the pigeon towers off in the distance. Rob Doyle will be in for the Christmas party later. It will be a chance to celebrate the year he’s had and socialise in the company to which he now belongs.
On the previous Sunday at Culture Vultures in Odessa where Doyle shared the bill with Nick Kelly and his band Alien Envoy – where we arranged this interview – Kelly looked at Doyle from the stage while he strummed his song ‘Resolution’ about the New Year promises we make and break and delivered the line,
I will write pages every day … I will
Here Are The Young Men is being published in the US in June 2015 and This Is The Ritual will be published in January 2016 by Lilliput and Bloomsbury.