‘Male writers now are the opposition party, and that may not be such a bad thing for them.’ So Rob Doyle writes in this addictive self-portrait/collection of reviews. And if male writers are now in navel-gazing opposition, ousted by a landslide of female talent, judging by this book Doyle is one of their most reactionary members, still in thrall to those outmoded frontbenchers who were long ago elevated to the Lords: Nietzsche, Huysmans, Bataille, Houellebecq, Amis Jr. His themes (male heterosexuality, aggression, drug use, alienation, philosophy) and consciously euphonious style reek of what he, in a scathing passage of self-reflection, calls a ‘desperate desire to be edgy’. And, by the norms of contemporary fiction, they also render him to many modern readers ‘toxic, misogynistic and violent, an unfortunate blot on the literary scene’.
Having spent two novels and one short story collection establishing this reputation, Autobibliography is Doyle’s self-justification of sorts — a guide to the reading that ‘formed’, ‘deformed’ and is now ‘reforming’ him. At its core are 52 pieces originally published in the Irish Times in 2019. Every 340-word column considered a favourite book of Doyle’s published before the 21st century, but each is here followed by an italicised addendum — either an additional reflection on the work in question, an excerpt from Doyle’s lockdown life (these addenda were written roughly between February and May 2020) or simply a further piece of self-examination. Though it owes much to Geoff Dyer, the format is a creative one and lives up to its grandiose title, the reader bobbing between sips of criticism and confessional autobiography. Different Rob Doyles from different periods of his existence disclose themselves and then disappear, creating a narrative of intellectual and sentimental growth from three decades of his reading life.
He acknowledges the challenge of such brevity, comparing each review to the critical equivalent of ‘haiku condensation’. But frequently he still manages to be fresh. Middle-period Kanye West is a fine modern analogue of the artistic self-absorption found in Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself; and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, a political essay in which she deployed ‘all the liberties and licences of a novelist’, is almost as interesting a formal experiment as it is a feminist text. He even breathes life and colour into some of his pale, stale heroes: the ‘mega-city entropy’ of Martin Amis’s London Fields is of 21st-century interest more for its examination of ‘flayed male egos’ than for its ostensible themes of nuclear warfare and ecological collapse.
Doyle is sharp and funny as a critic, and morbidly candid about his own life when he brings it into his analyses. It is these qualities that allow us to indulge his more eccentric judgments — for instance, that future ages will regard the ethnobotanist and psychedelics advocate Terence McKenna ‘the way we do Copernicus’.
But the ultimate achievement of this book isn’t simply the creation of an edgy reading list, though the turtle-necked young reader will find plenty for his TBR. No, like Doyle’s other books, we find a writer living and thinking his way to the frontiers of human society, rather than, as in so much contemporary writing, at its cosy core. In one section Doyle considers the notion that art should not be ‘problematic’ — that it should avoid ‘describing what is and express what ought to be’ — and rejects it in favour of ‘everything in the human being that is messy, vital and interesting; everything shadowy, unconscious, offline’. I for one am looking forward to the next thing he finds there.