The Glamour of His Alienation: Rob Doyle Interviewed

Published in Arts and Culture | Print

Originally arranged to take place in Devitts of Camden Street on the afternoon of Saturday the 31st of May, this interview was cancelled by the interviewer early that morning when he awoke with a fever. Rearranged for Monday the 2nd of June, the interview was again cancelled when the interviewer awoke to find his fever had not yet passed. When, on Tuesday the 10th of June, the interviewer was finally fit to meet the author outside Gerry’s on Montague Street, the café was discovered to be too crowded to enter or sit down in. Not that the pair could have done so in any case, the author having forgotten the keys to the lock of the bike he rode in on. Instead, the interview was conducted under a tree in St. Stephen’s Green, where much of the time was spent discussing a particular narrative decision made by the author at the very end of his novel. It was agreed that, although the author did not want the interview to contain spoilers, it would nonetheless be possible to include the material in a discreet and unrevealing manner. As it turned out, it was not; the offending material has been omitted accordingly. Finally ready for the public, the interview was due to be published in the July issue of Totally Dublin. Due to a series of crossed wires, it was not. This is an interview that does not want to exist, to be seen. Yet here it is, a minor miracle really. Here Are the Young Men is a full-on slap in the face of public taste that confronts contemporary realities as directly as any Irish novel in years. Its author, Rob Doyle, has been patient.

(With any luck, this interview will appear in the August issue of Totally Dublin.)

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What is Here Are the Young Men about?

It’s is about a bunch of eighteen year-olds living in Dublin in 2003. Having just finished their Leaving Cert, they begin their first summer of freedom in an orgy of drug abuse, alcohol and excess. They move further adrift of society, falling increasingly under the influence of one of their friends, Kearney, a deranged and psychopathic figure. As the summer progresses, things become more and more intense. Lured on by their obsession with jihad, 9/11, terror, video games, media violence and pornography, they end up committing acts of ever greater transgression and atrocity. It all gets a little out of hand.

You said in your interview with gorse that you want the book to be ‘a nail bomb going off against a certain conception of Irish literature’. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Me and my grandiose rhetoric. I suppose what I meant was that, as a reader growing up in Ireland, I felt a personal alienation from the kind of books I saw coming out – with some exceptions, you know. A lot of these books were just so sedate, so polite. They didn’t seem to speak to and of the harsh, intense, technological reality I was confronted with. I went off and tried to write this book without any inhibition, determined to get it all down. I wanted to write something that felt more honest, or visceral, more merciless and direct in its depiction of the reality I knew than a lot of the literature I saw being published. Here Are the Young Men doesn’t have much in common with the pastoral, parochial or domestic themes that are often presented to us as constituting the Irish literary tradition. And yet, obviously, it is part of that tradition – I guess that’s why people have always written novels: to update the menu. I mean, there were people like Roddy Doyle who were important in terms of opening up what was possible, but I think there’s also a generational issue here. People in their twenties now or early thirties have been born into a world which looks radically alien to that which pertained not so long ago. There’s need for new writing, or new types of writing. Anyway, one way of overcoming alienation – from literature, from your own society and culture – is to write a book, and see it in the shops, and see people reading it. You can then at least feel you have forced a recognition of reality as you have experienced it, and that’s a relief. You have a voice. You don’t have to blow your brains out.

Will the novel have to go down as a failure if it’s accepted by Official Ireland: you know, if it’s reviewed well in all the papers, if nobody is outraged by it – if its nails miss, as it were?

[laughs] I don’t think so, frankly. Because I want it to be read by as many people as possible. I don’t want it to be ignored, and I’m pleased to say it hasn’t been. First and foremost, this to me is a serious novel, addressing deadly serious issues – suicide, hedonism, generational despair, cultural nihilism, moral collapse – even if it does so in a confrontational, irreverent, witty manner. I want Here Are the Young Men to be read, discussed and engaged with. There’s an awful lot more going on in this book than attempts to provoke outrage. That will be clear to anyone who reads it. In the run-up to publishing the book, I went through a period of extreme insecurity. You realise that your book is going out into the world and you don’t know if you’re going to be ripped asunder, particularly when writing about the kind of things I’ve written about. Even though it’s fiction, the whole thing feels very self-exposing, and I was scared. But then, as it got closer to publication and the book finally took physical form, it just melted away. I feel like I’ve done my part and now I just want people to read the book. I don’t want to take responsibility for how it goes down.

The ‘nail bomb’ line probably constitutes one of the ‘brash, punky, apocalyptic things’ you mentioned in gorse that you have a tendency to say. You claim it’s necessary to speak like this in order ‘to keep provoking yourself and to keep provoking the form’. In what ways has Here Are The Young Men provoked the form, do you think?

I don’t know that it has, or that it was particularly meant to. Not majorly, anyway. It’s a linear realist novel, more or less. I think my tastes as a reader are quite split, as is the case with a lot of readers I know. I love work that is innovative or ‘experimental’, to use that awful phrase, but I’ve also got a conservative streak. I love good realist novels. I could happily read Ian McEwan or Jonathan Franzen all day, and I think there’s still a space for that. Having grown up with a lot of realist novels, I wanted to prove to myself that I could write one of them. On my own terms, of course. That’s what I love about it, that it’s gotten published without any kind of watering down or anything. It’s not polite. It’s saying it straight out, even at a kind of risk of, as I said before, exposing myself. Not that I’m alone in that: all writing is self-exposure. Like a bunch of flashers in the park, with fewer and fewer people watching.

The part of the book which interested me most – and which I think is perhaps the centre of the entire book – is a very short little section in which Matthew ‘relishes the glamour of his alienation’, to use an expression you use earlier in the text. He’s at a party, still up from any number of nights before, when suddenly the narrative switches, for just a few lines, from the first-person to the third-person.

That’s an interesting one to pick. That particular paragraph, like so many other parts of the book, is attempting to represent a certain type of hyper-self-awareness. In this case, it’s brought on by Matthew dropping acid, but it’s also a broader contemporary issue. It would be tricky to write an honest book about being alive today, I think, and existing within a certain demographic or generation or whatever, without addressing the narrativisation of self, the inauthenticity of experience, the mediation of reality. How do you go about writing a novel when life itself has been novelised, when life is cinema? That was one of the fascinating impulses behind writing the book for me: to address this issue in what I hope is a pretty rigorous way. So there are some excruciating sex scenes, for instance, in which the characters are trying and failing to live up to pornography or cinematic sex. (The first time I ever gave a public reading from Here Are the Young Men, one lad fainted during one of these sex scenes, so I knew it had hit home.) All the characters are always watching themselves; there’s no way for them to ‘act natural’ any more. Even when they drift into committing torture and acts of sadistic violence, they’re watching themselves doing it. By no means am I the first writer to talk about this, of course. Someone like David Foster Wallace does it exceptionally well. Also Martin Amis, Bret Easton Ellis, Michel Houellebecq, and more recently Ben Lerner. They all face up to this stuff.

You’ve said that the character Kearney, who preys on the weak, who fetishizes the death of children, was ‘delirious fun to write’. What exactly is it that makes this stuff fun to write?

Simple: it’s about getting to explore the unconscious in all its anarchic, malevolent ferocity. But I would say that there are certain of Kearney’s scenes that were not exactly ‘fun’ to write. I don’t want to spoil the plot in an interview for people who haven’t read it, but there are parts with Kearney in it where you’ll notice a distinct lack of humour. These are among the darkest and most intense parts of the book, in which extremely cruel and abhorrent things are done to innocent people. I would exclude those parts from the idea that Kearney was fun to write: ‘fun’ is not an appropriate word in those cases and it wouldn’t have been an appropriate sentiment – which is not to deny that desire, authorial desire, comes into it in some murky, psychoanalytic sense. To me, a lot of the book, particularly in the last third, gets really painful – painful to read, painful to write. In general though, this character, who hasn’t a sniff of morality to him, was fun to write because all that stuff is down there. I don’t know about you, but for me, and I would imagine for most people, it’s there, whether you like it or not. In 2014, a century after Freud, it will shock no-one to hear that normal human beings harbour desires to rape, attack, hurt and murder others. Fiction is a good way of exploring all this messy stuff.

The violence Kearney enacts – against women, the homeless, etc. – seems to be a manifestation of a more generalised set of societal prejudices that are just about concealed beneath the discourse of Official Ireland.

Exactly. The hatred of the underclass – drug addicts, in this case – I think that’s barely below the surface. In fact, I don’t think it’s below the surface at all. It’s mainstream discourse – or at least street-level mainstream discourse. It’s not even considered politically incorrect to say ‘those fucking knackers’, or ‘scumbags’, or whatever. ‘Scumbags’ is almost recognised as a social class.

Did you feel any reluctance using hate-speech in the novel? The n-word appears a fair few times.

No, not at all. Because, why? It’s a word, you know. I’m not writing a polemic or an essay or a call for social reform. I’m writing a novel. It’s not a word I use myself, but – I’m just trying to think of when it’s used in the book – it’s mostly them signing their emails and that, isn’t it?

There’s one passage where Kearney is watching Judge Judy with his mother.

Oh yeah, and he talks about the black guy on screen, yeah sure.

Do you think this goes back to the stuff about the exploration of the unconscious?

I suppose when you make anything forbidden, it has a certain erotic allure to it. There’s a kind of obscene music to hate-speech, racial invective, any language that’s charged with violence. It’s forbidden and it’s usually repressed, but it’s all there in what I would call the social unconscious. But I think we pretty much all agree that multiracial society is a good thing, or at least all the people I know do. I just feel like I’d have been writing dishonestly if I had some eighteen-year-old psychopath, a guy who doesn’t give a fuck about anything, look at a black guy on screen and say, you know, ‘the African-American man’. This is a guy who wants to smash his mother’s face in. That’s his fantasy. He’s a hateful racist.

Is this a book for boys?

It’s a book about masculinity. Sure, it’s about the hatred of the underclass, and pornography, and the media, and post-Christian Ireland, and 9/11, and drugs, and atrocity-porn, and all sorts of other things, but for me, primarily, this is a book about men and the collapse of a certain conception of masculinity for a particular generation. I mean, it’s not a novel that even has many female characters, with the major exception of Jen, who I consider perhaps the most admirable and the strongest character in there. But why should there be more women? It’s a book called Here Are the Young Men: it’s about young men and the crisis they’re going through – about unhappiness and despair and impotence, both metaphorical and literal. And I’ve been really gratified that a lot of women who’ve read it really get that. So when you ask is it a book for males, sure, of course it is, but it’s equally a book for females. In fact, my suspicion is that women have even more to gain by reading Here Are the Young Men, because a lot of the experiences depicted in the book – the insecurities, rage, anxieties and humiliations – will already be familiar to a lot of men. We were talking earlier about whether I would be gratified if people were outraged, and maybe there’s some little teenage part of me that might have a slight hankering for that, but honestly, what would be far more gratifying is if female readers of the book are interested precisely because this is about how men are today. One thing I’m proud of in this novel, which makes it more than a mere exercise in brutalism, is that there is a real vulnerability and sensitivity to the characters alongside all the horror, rage and brutality into which they descend. That’s why the novel works, in my opinion. I think you can see a lot of truth about how men are now in this book.

Here Are the Young Men is published by Lilliput Press.

Words: Kevin Breathnach

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