this is the ritual
by Rob Doyle
When you strip away all the gloss and glitter, the highwire plotting with acrobat characters, after the trumpets of hype are laid to rest in their velvet-lined cases what remains at the nut of a writer’s art is reporting. See something that is worth knowing and convince a reader of that worth. Tell the truth and make it vivid. All the rest of it is marketing.
There are of course two generalized means of approach to this. The writer can travel to places and experience things that are both literally and psychologically foreign to the average reader in his horsehair-stuffed chair, or her comfy bed with the pillows plumped just so. Or, there are the dramas in the study and the fire in the bedroom, those familiar objects that look very unfamiliar indeed when an a torchlight held by the writer’s hand causes them to cast monster-shaped shadows on bungalow walls. Is the art here or is it there, and where is there if not indeed here?
That doesn’t make it easy of course, although given that in 2015 over one million books were published in English alone there seem to be one hell of a lot of people who think that just because they can speak a language they can write in it; most can’t, or at the very least not well. This makes it rather difficult for the few hundred who can truly re-create a world on a page to get noticed at all. The task is rather like two top football teams, say Barcelona and Bayern Munich, trying to play an artful match on a pitch where the spectators were allowed to wander around, occasionally taking a punt at the ball. Can’t someone please blow a bloody whistle and call security?
Rob Doyle is one of the writers who deserves a place on the team and I am therefore delighted that his short story series this is the ritual is the first book I am reviewing in 2016. Doyle you see takes a perspective on his work that is equal parts wisdom and mischief. Given that you’re the sort of person who reads literary book reviews, I am quite sure you know the tale of Plato’s Cave, so there is no need to explain that one for the nine millionth time. However, while most writers (including many very good ones) will create stories about the deception of the shadows or the blindness of the cave dwellers, Doyle is interested in the anonymous person who keeps the flame burning behind the drama. That’s the real interesting person in the room; the wizard in the Oz chamber, the author himself.
For this reason, this is the ritual is not a short story ‘collection’ in the traditional sense. No, these nineteen pieces are a series that interweave and comment on one another with the effect of a scientist looking into a microscope only to see on his slide a smaller version of himself looking up through a telescope.
Doyle lets us know what he’s up to in the very first story, John-Paul Finnegan, Paltry Realist. Finnegan and the narrator are traveling from Holyhead back to Ireland after many years away on a not-at-all-ironically-named ferry Ulysses. On deck and with spray slapping about, they talk about books they have read, experiences they have had, and what expectations readers demand. They are also more than a bit edgy about returning to Ireland. The story thus becomes as whimsically elegant an apologia as you’ll ever run across. Here’s what I’ve been up to and I hope you like what I’ve done with it.
Doyle’s cast includes many a character who are like the prophets writing on the subway walls in Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sounds of Silence. The words may be wise, but who pays attention to spray paint philosophy? For instance, there’s the nameless roll-up smoker found alone on an empty Ballymount Estate in No Man’s Land who expounds on Nietzsche between slugs of Dutch Gold beer. He summarizes with an eloquent description of despair that later reduces the narrator to such a quivering mess he asks his mother if he can sleep on the floor beside her bed:
‘There’s no plan any more. This is unprecedented. There is no father. There is no appeal. And hell, hell assumes its true fuckin significance. We’re already there. I saw all this so fuckin clearly, durin a mushroom trip out here, one of the first times I came to this place. The mushrooms are like a technology, they let ye see what’s happened to the world. Death is in everything now. I sat there cryin and screamin for hours. The entire sky was crushin me, all of outer space was pressin down on me. I was buried and I’ve never come back. I’m still buried. There is no surface, nowhere to claw back to. You’re buried too, and ye know it, I can see it in ye. There is no father. There is n therapy. Do ye know how that feels?’
Well yes actually we do … not that we like to dwell on those moments. That though is the writer’s job, the ritual itself, to cause us to feel that which we prefer to bury for truth should never be buried. Mind you, truth-tellers are often uncelebrated or come to grim ends. The dubious fortune of being ‘taken seriously’ often seems utterly random, a point Doyle makes with his deeply satirical, wonderfully wicked creation Killian Turner. Much like Kurt Vonnegut Jr’s Kilgore Trout – and if those matching KT initials are a coincidence, I’m my Aunt Nancy’s cat – Turner is either a genius disguised as a fraud or a fraud disguised as a genius. Turner is introduced in the story Exiled in the Infinite – Killian Turner, Ireland’s Vanished Literary Outlaw. Turner, an Irish writer, is described by a minor academic thusly: ‘In fact, his body of work, taken as a whole, might be seen as Turner’s lifelong project of effacing all marks of nationhood from his authorial voice and literary being.’ Much like James Joyce or Samuel Beckett, Turner becomes a celebrated Irish writer be getting the hell out of Dodge, or at least Dun Laoghaire. He becomes a linking device in this is the ritual, popping up unannounced in the later stories, again much like Kilgore Trout in Slaughterhouse-Five or Breakfast of Champions.
The themes and interplay, the point/counter-point of story elements continue to work until what is formed is akin to a watertight woven basket. Nietzsche arrives again as a subject for a writer who never gets around to writing much as he never feels his research his sufficient. Doyle himself appears in character form, which is a device I usually use to club writers with a spade, however given the shot/reverse shot nature of this is the ritual‘s dialogue about observing and writing, this is one time where the author deserves to appear on stage.
Finally, this is the ritual reminds of a favourite lesser-known film, Joe Gould’s Secret, directed by and starring the criminally underrated Stanley Tucci. Joe Gould was a real-life charlatan, a for want of a better term hobo who was taken in, virtually adopted by New York’s cognoscenti as he claimed to have written a nearly completed, nine million word long ‘Oral History’. The book was the sociological equivalent of a physicist’s theory of everything, except the book never existed. Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker was one of those taken in by Joe Gould, writing two Profile pieces on him, one in 1942 and the second admitting the fraud in 1964. After that second piece, Mitchell continued to go to his office at The New Yorker every work day, Monday to Friday, for another twenty years. He never wrote another word. In this is the ritual, Rob Doyle writes the book Joe Mitchell should have written emerging from that experience.
Be seeing you.
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)
Since writing this review, Hubert has also interviewed Rob in a 30-minute podcast for Thoughts Comments Opinions on the San Diego Book Review site.