Singapore writers festival

A man fainted at reading of Irishman Rob Doyle’s provoking book

Rob Doyle is among the Irish writers invited to the ongoing Singapore Writers Festival as part of this year's country focus on Ireland.
Rob Doyle is among the Irish writers invited to the ongoing Singapore Writers Festival as part of this year's country focus on Ireland.PHOTO: COURTESY OF ROB DOYLE

Rob Doyle, whose novels are provoking and peopled by aggressive characters, says it is good to have an impact

"Everyone in Ireland pretends to have read Ulysses or acts like they've read it, but none of them has," declares a character in the opening story of Irish writer Rob Doyle's book This Is The Ritual (2016). "The last person in Ireland to read Ulysses was James Joyce, and even he only read half of it."

Fighting words for any Irishman - Joyce being one of the sacred cows of Irish literature - although in a comic, metafictional twist, this rant is being delivered by a character called Finnegan aboard a ferry called Ulysses, slyly referencing two of Joyce's most famous novels, the other being Finnegans Wake.

Iconoclasm, says Doyle over Skype from Dublin, is necessary work. "It's hygienic and salutary to hack away at everything that is stale, that is too sanctified by the literary community, so it can be refreshed. Writers in every generation do this. Then they, in turn, get overthrown and shaken up."

The 34-year-old is among the Irish writers invited to the ongoing Singapore Writers Festival as part of this year's country focus on Ireland.

Doyle first made waves with his debut novel Here Are The Young Men (2014), which delves into the dark, ultraviolent psyches of disaffected Irish teenagers. Dublin magazine Hot Press chose it as one of Ireland's 20 greatest novels since 1916.

During the first public reading of the book, a young man fainted during an explicit sex scene and had to be carried out. "I was quite proud, actually," admits Doyle. "It is good to have an impact."

In person, he comes across as mild-mannered, a far cry from the aggressive characters that people his books. "I don't feel very rebellious at the moment," he says.

  • BOOK IT / THE INDOMITABLE IRISHRY: CHRONICLING IRELAND THROUGH THE DECADES

  • WHAT: A panel discussion between Rob Doyle, poet Gerald Dawe and short story writer Eilis Ni Dhuibhne

    WHERE: Blue Room, The Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane

    WHEN: Saturday, 3.30pm

    ADMISSION: Festival pass event, $25 via Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

    INFO: www.singaporewritersfestival.com

  • THE ART OF DEPICTING VIOLENCE

  • WHAT: A panel discussion between Rob Doyle and French writer Edouard Louis

    WHERE: Chamber, The Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane

    WHEN: Sunday, 5.30pm

    ADMISSION: Festival pass event, $25 via Sistic

"It is certainly harder to shock people these days. I can turn on my phone and find any kind of horrible torture. Because of certain ideological shifts, the mainstream has become so liberated and uninhibited that the only thing that shocks people now is a kind of conservativeness."

Lest one confuses his opinions with those of his character, he points out that Finnegan is selfdeluded. "It was a comedy about the pretensions around the Irish literary reputation.

"The Ulysses hype is perfectly justified," he adds. "It's subversive, anarchic, crazed."

Finnegan is one of several fictitious writers who parade through This Is The Ritual, a collection of short stories that range from the comic to the painful. One story, No Man's Land, was inspired by a troubled friend of Doyle's who has dealt with extreme psychological problems throughout his life.

The writer also fell into film acting two years ago, after getting drunk with the director of existential road film Hit The North (2016), who cast him in the lead role.

Doyle began writing about Dublin only when he was travelling the world in his 20s and had spent some time away from his hometown in a sort of "self-imposed exile".

Even then, he was uninterested in the techniques of realism, or writing about the minutiae of Irish social life. Like Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, he was fascinated with grandiose concepts such as the cosmos, the abyss and infinity.

"I don't feel constrained by the necessity to write about the mundane," he says. "I want to be able to look at the biggest things possible."

It is his first time in Singapore and he says he is excited about the climate, the food and, of course, the festival.

"I would like to show by example that Irish literature is not necessarily predictable. It is not parochial or constrained by cliche - it is exciting, divisive and very much in dialogue with the whole world."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 07, 2017, with the headline 'A man fainted at his book's reading'. Print Edition | Subscribe