Review – Threshold by Rob Doyle

There’s a point in Rob Doyle’s Threshold (that I can’t find because I read the book “bareback” on my Kindle) where Rob (the protagonist of Threshold) questions the necessity of much of what is published today. Rob posits a need for vital urgency before publishing; that there’s too many books. Whether there’s a vital urgency for the reader beneath Rob Doyle’s writing is up in the air, but if the publishing industry were to ask for a baseline of quality then Threshold should be where it’s set.

Doyle’s prose is a serenade. Well practiced, note perfect, and tonally ringing it charts a peripatetic searcher as he spends time in a multitude of cities looking to surmount the heights—or more accurately travail the shadowy valleys—of the innate knowledge, the deep feeling that there is more to all this. Much like the cliche, the real treasure is the friends we make along the way; what we learn as we go; our experiences that build. This is especially the case as Rob’s searching is, serendipitously (to be charitable), finished by the end of the novel, with an inexplicable—and so unrevealed—meaning found through DMT; the spirit molecule. He’s asked himself, found himself, but Rob Doyle serves only Rob Doyle.

A book of questions then, with searching at the heart of it, but the main question surrounding the book is the package it comes in, “What is this?” Is it fiction, non-fiction, auto-fiction, confession, memoir? There’s an underlying assumption to this wondering that few of those asking ever reveal. One answer is shouldered by Doyle’s proposition that the book is, simply, a novel; enough words strung together. This belies the distinction a reader makes when approaching fiction, non-fiction, confession, or memoir. If something has been lived (and then written) its value is assumed at a different level to a fictional story. If something is fiction, then we want to know why an author has gone to the effort to imagine it into being. The difference between these two approaches is purpose; real life is mined for purpose whatever way it has spent itself; fiction is presumed to be brought about for purpose, to carry meaning in its bones.

Ultimately, Rob as written by Rob Doyle is the lad you meet in the pub, who, if so inclined, recounts his recent travels to you as you stare at your pint you’re certain someone else must be drinking, before you then buy him a round, and he returns the gesture, eventually coming to the point where you’re asking the barman for a cost-price bottle of whiskey to take home with you. Unlike this lad you meet in the pub, no intoxicants (or loneliness, or horniness) are necessary to appreciate the story. And much like this lad in the pub, who you probably won’t meet again, the veracity of the story isn’t the point. As your vision begins to tunnel and your laughs get louder, your purpose of the night in the pub has been met; you’re drunk, you’re entertained; you’ve not found purpose to your non-drinking days but for now they’re far away.

That Threshold’s ultimate reveal is kept from us is a reflection of Rob’s underlying truth. This is his journey, not yours or mine, and it is a—possibly the—truth of his journey as novel. True insight, true purpose is entirely one’s own. It is not in books, but neither is it in living. I have a feeling that true purpose for Rob (as is said in the book) is simply writing the book. In this way true insight was hidden from me: I did not write this book. Even reading Rob’s purpose—the book—it is not Rob or Rob Doyle’s to give. Instead he shows how it might be revealed to us, or, to be more accurate, how it can be bagged up into an experience, vicariously lived (reading to you and I) that brings us to a fractal developing more and more people asking that same heartfelt question. With this higher purpose in mind I do wonder if anyone not already asking this will begin to question, or if those on a similar path can do more than simply nod at a fellow traveller.

Threshold follows Rob’s continuing questioning as written by Rob Doyle. I can’t answer if this book will inspire you to ask yourself questions, directly or not. I asked some, but mostly I was assuaged by the smooth, sweet prose reassuring me there are others on the same trip.

Review – Sally Rooney’s Normal People

Read the critical reception for Sally Rooney’s Normal People and you’ll find talk of youth, class, power dynamics, alienation, and love as powerfully told as in the classic novels. All are present in her second novel, but it’s Anne Enright’s review in The Irish Times which speaks of craft, something that looms large over the entirety of Sally Rooney’s work.

Written in close third person perspective—key to Normal People—Rooney’s Connell and Marianne have found in each other a rare thing; understanding without awareness; love without artifice. And it’s the first half of Normal People that offers us this love, one without a clear-cut rationale; one with no scaffold for Marianne and Connell’s experience with each other. We see only glimpses of the wider life they live, leading to a search for context to their living with and apart from each other. I looked for these signs among their world, my world, a world I know, a world I look for reasons for in novels even if I have to close the gap the author leaves for me (which a good author will invariably leave.) The gap Rooney left was vast, one I felt I couldn’t cross. They didn’t exist in the world, as much as they didn’t exist within the novel’s world as ostensible couple. I couldn’t see their love as having any proof of existence outside of abstracts to a reader. It was all of everything to them, and so made of nothing when compared to the emptiness surrounding it.

Towards the end of the first half of the story Connell and Marianne are apart from each other (again) and we see more of their wider world sneak into the story—a world where each others love isn’t the ultimate prize to have and hold. This was the first time I truly felt their love existing. It became a love in relief, cast against and observed by something outside of both protagonists. Marianne is standing in a supermarket, avoiding the stares of her small Sligo town by inspecting yoghurt and hoping to remain anonymous among the groceries, while speaking to a friend on the phone. Marianne and Connell’s story of love (and absence) had gone from abstract to real.

Up until that point, although I could, if I directed myself to, imagine how Marianne and Connell’s lives existed without each other, Rooney’s novel gave me little reason to believe in it. This, perhaps, is Rooney’s greatest use of craft. With the second half of the book, and further examples of the wider world intruding on the beset couple, I was finally able to see their love as real and not so pure as to exist only as a promise from a story. Maybe this is my failing; that I can’t credit the meanings of emotions without a context, but as I accepted their love as more real than useful fiction, as fitting within an order of the world, so too the characters begin to realise it themselves. It’s by this point Connell and Marianne’s existence with each other is being seen by their friends and family. The novel’s world’s seeing them is Connell and Marianne’s accepting of it, is my seeing it. This is a fine cut from Rooney, and puts questions of craft to the fore.

The most important question for me is to what purpose this craft has been put? Maybe Rooney asks for an element of faith in how we address the world. Maybe she asks that we believe in two people’s love, people’s fear and hurt, everyone’s potential misunderstanding, a person’s sexual assault—and brava to Rooney for handling the sexual assault of a man with ferocity— someone’s physical and emotional abuse, possibly just that we believe in ourselves. Yet this is the greatest failing in Normal People. The emotions feeding the characters’ thoughts, the thoughts’ feeding their decisions are often wrong but are rarely in doubt. Everything is experienced, felt, sometimes mulled over, but never questioned or doubted.

This is why Rooney’s third person perspective is key to this story, and why her craft asks questions of the story itself. By cutting their nascent love off from the world, we’re allowed to see it form in purity. Introducing them as a couple to the world, we’re allowed to see it with contrast. Equally, what we’re allowed to see of their interiority is carefully selected, and if we never see a real doubt in their attraction, their feeling for each other, this is a careful stroke from Rooney. Perhaps we’re supposed to feel it in the abstract, without her direction, much as we saw their love as abstract without any context. I somehow doubt this: Rooney has done everything with purpose.

Normal People is an atypical love story told typically. Marianne doubts she can be loved, but rarely doubts her own doubt. The truth that we reach at the end of the story is hard fought for but inevitable. Marianne has been through false loves, but her one love, despite upsets, remains true. It’s a love she’s rejected, run from, put down and mistook for something else, but it was never in doubt. It was never something to be interrogated as both real and unreal; as the possibilities of a falling coin, however weighted by circumstance. The emotion between Marianne and Connell was never to be questioned, rather always true, it just didn’t come with directions on how they should handle it.

Rooney portrays a couple the reader may doubt (and has certainly crafted a story where I was filled with doubt) but this is never reflected in the characters. Unlike their love becoming real in my mind as it becomes real to the world within the novel, the doubt I feel over loves in my life—doubts anyone could feel over any emotion—is never addressed by Rooney. Their world is truth, their experience is truth, and this may very well be the truth of love. For me it’s hard to see anything as unquestionable truth, except for the occasional purposefully crafted romance, and from this the love I’ve read in Normal People is experienced as written; seemingly as fantasy.

The Importance of Strong Drink, Strong Emotions, and Crying in Bars

Everyone who matters to Jessica noticed her coming into the pub, except for me. I didn’t notice their noticing until she was already sitting next to me.

Now I see why she drew their attention. Her face is red and flustered. It seems to be struggling to contain a more gnarled, knotted face beneath. The sleeves of her new hoodie—a baggy green hoodie—are stretched taut, past her hands and balled into her fists. She’s biting on her upper lip.

Everyone who matters to Jessica is silenced by her tears, and so they casually ignore her; giving her her independence; giving her the space to sit with herself on the stool at the counter in our local. I’m sitting next to her, so I don’t want to ignore her. She needs space, freedom, but not to be ignored. Despite this I feel like I’m hanging; suspended; in another world where we don’t exist, where I can’t reach out to her, or if I could I would never close the distance.

I don’t know what to say to someone upset. There’s a gagging where my mind connects to my thoughts; a gagging as though someone has placed a plastic bag between my words and my lungs. I join everyone’s silence.

Aaron, the barman, our friend, moves behind the bar to in front of us. He flashes a haphazard smile at the people sitting at the other end of the counter. The people he flashes a smile at seem small and distant but still lean towards us; a whole presence waiting on us.

Jessica’s arms are folded across her chest, covering a sports logo. She’s almost hugging herself. She could be on her couch, in her home, after finishing an upsetting film. She hasn’t noticed Aaron standing in front of us. I think she’s trying not to acknowledge him, or trying not to acknowledge herself before him.

Maybe she has noticed, because now she looks at him, then past him, then past me to the board where the beers are listed in chalk. I can feel her looking past me because I still don’t know what to say. I feel like I want to say something, but all I can think of is the word, ‘I.’ It’s as though I want, but there’s nothing beyond the want, or a reason to find the want. If there is a want for me—somewhere—a reason, it’s as vast as the city outside us; the city we come to this bar to escape from. Now the city isn’t outside. There’s nothing to escape. The world doesn’t exist. We’re all sitting in silence. I want to hold her. For her, and so me, for everyone to feel OK.

Aaron speaks up and asks, “A beer?” Jessica sniffs. “Or something stronger?” he continues. “We’ve got in more of that Game of Thrones whisk—”

“Tap seven,” she says. She sniffs again. She rubs her finger beneath her nose. She rubs her hand against her forehead. She looks up at me. The plastic bag is not only caught on my lungs but is wrapped around my head now. I still can’t speak. She returns to hugging herself, tugging the fresh green hoodie around her. I breathe. The plastic bag is like a film over the night with her a beacon shining against it; making us all vague and indiscernible; reflecting off our artificial surface.

Aaron walks the eight feet to the other end of the bar, to tap seven, and begins to pour. Everyone sitting there, the people who know Jessica, look at Aaron. Their eyes widen, questioning, apprehensive, pleading with him. If they looked at me it would be the same.

Stu coughs, a stuttering cough, then asks about the Game of Thrones whiskeys.

“The Baratheon one is decent,” Aaron says. “Jessica tried it when it came in a week ago.” As he says her name his eyes dart towards where we sit. Now the bar breathes. The film on the night has begun to decay, or maybe bubble and boil. Its hold is somehow thinner.

“What did he think?” Stu asks.

Jessica doesn’t move. “She,” she says.

At almost the exact same time as looks fly between us—the people outside ourselves—Stu corrects himself. “‘She!’ Sorry, yeah. Sorry! What did you think of it, Jess?” he says, as though blessing himself.

“It was good, better than the others I tried.” She looks down the bar, taking us all in, taking Stu in. She smiles. “It was definitely the best of them.” She carefully rubs a knuckle from her bent finger beneath her eye. “You should definitely try it.”

Aaron finishes her beer and places it in front of her. “Your Christmas pint,” he says. “On the house.”


The film around everything has mostly dissipated. I think it was Jessica’s smile that did it. She smiled though upset.

“I thought you were going out west for the holidays, back home? Did something happen?” I ask her.

“Yeah,” she says. She tugs at her hoodie as though she’s swamped.

“Fucking family,” I say.

She laughs. There’s a crackling to her laugh.

“When did you get back?”

“I came straight from the bus.” She stands. “A bus with no toilet. Excuse me.” She doesn’t move. She’s biting on her lip again. I place my hand on her shoulder. “What’s the point in going home to change?” she says. She laughs as she rolls her eyes. She turns and rushes towards the bathroom. My hand falls away from her as she leaves.

The presence of people at the other end of the bar are looking at me as I turn to them. “What’s wrong? What happened?” Alex asks.

“Family. She didn’t say.”

“A lot of families would find it hard to accept,” Greg says. “Transphobia’s virulent. Especially with parents.”

“No treatment but time,” Aaron says. “And care.”

There’s a few nods from the bar.

“Is that it?” I ask.

Stu looks as though he’s about to speak but stops himself, and everyone turns away as I feel Jessica push in next to me. I turn to her as she lifts her drink. Her hands are shaking.

“What happened?” I ask. “Did one of your family say something? Your father? He’s always been an arse.”

“No. No-one said anything,” she says.

“If you want to talk about it,” I say.

“They gave me this hoodie.” She pulls on it, thumb and index finger pinching it away. It snaps back towards her chest, settling to the same looseness it had just seconds before. “It was beneath the Christmas tree. There was a note suggesting I wear it for the day.” She gasps in air as she speaks; gulping on the words as if they would flow and form into an ocean, drowning her, drowning us all if she didn’t somehow swallow them.

“It looks comfortable,” I say.

“It’s a male hoodie,” she says. She’s smiling, but her eyes are watering.

“You pull it off.”

“It’s what it represents.”

I nod. I don’t understand what it represents, then suddenly I do. I put my arm around her, then hug her.

“Thanks,” she says. She smiles and rubs her eyes again.

I look at her, straight on, really focusing. I try to see a man. I don’t. I don’t see the shape of a man, I don’t see a man’s face. I think of the ‘Thanks’ she just said. It’s not a man’s voice. It’s deep, gravelly like a radio DJ’s, but it’s not a male voice. It’s Jessica’s. It’s hers. All she is is hers. I tell her this.

She sniffs and smiles, and rubs at her eyes, first her left eye, then her right. I notice she’s not wearing mascara, any makeup, and for some reason I can hear the sound of her finger on skin; the sound of a tear being rubbed away in a silent pub.

I’m looking at her, a little awed, until I notice she’s smiling at Aaron. He’s placed two amber-coloured shots in front of us, holding a third in his hand. He winks at us. “Merry fucking Christmas!” he says. He downs the rum. The bar’s chaos seems to wash in around us.

“I thought it would be hard,” I say.

“What?” she asks. She lifts her glass. The surrounding press of people is beginning to jostle us again.

“Adjusting to you. Seeing you as a woman when I’ve known you as a man for years. It’s not. You are—” The plastic bag catches in my throat, halting me.

“I am,” she says. She knocks back the shot.

Answers and Questions and Doors – On the Honest Ulsterman

Throughout my life I was upset because I felt I had no identity I could give myself to. Then I came around to the idea that identities are’t really that important (if they even exist,) so I wrote this short story, “Answers and Questions and Doors: A Text on Questions, Identity and Answers for the Grand Association of Door Openers” published on The Honest Ulsterman

It would be an achievement, of sorts, if I could tell you how many doors I’ve opened in my life. A rough estimate is possibly something I could manage. I’ve worked this job, opening doors, for seventeen years.

Coming out of school, or at least leaving school, not finishing school, is always taking a chance. You don’t know where life will take you other than the fact you’re going somewhere. Friends had babies. Left school. Friends had boyfriends. Left school. Left the boyfriend. All that in some kind of order anyway. Friends had difficulties with the aul wans. School aul wans. Home aul wans. Actually auld aul wans, thinking back. Left school. Left home. Became aul wans, eventually. Usually in that order. I left school because it didn’t have any more answers for me.

I guess, in a way, I was lucky to leave school in the manner I did. There was nothing pushing me out. I was pulling me out. I dragged my life behind me, a right good tug, and it vaulted before me. There I was, with everything laid out, a career somehow ahead of me. Pure luck. It’s entirely this manner of addressing life that wound me up in this job where I open doors.

For a decade houses have been built and I somehow managed to end up opening doors during the decade houses weren’t being built. Or apartments. Or factories (although they tend to have less doors.) Nothing was being built. No train stations, bus stations, lightrail stations. Even offices, now open plan, then less so, with some doors to be opened weren’t being built. And I lucked into a business where doors weren’t being opened. The people who built doors needed someone to do exactly that, open them up. Health and safety. Or box ticking. Something along those lines. I couldn’t tell you how many doors I’ve opened in my life, so maybe that will be my last question: how many important doors have I opened?

It frightened me when this future would have come. Slowly rising, welcoming, announcing itself with emptiness. Is this what I chased? I didn’t ask. That’s what I was afraid of; that coming present; me chasing questions across fields, across cities, and yes, through doors. The present, now, passed, or then to be, where all there was was a, “What’s next?” or a, “What’s this?” There were deeper questions. Some questions are deep, some are shallow, some barely count. But this future would have come, asking one last question. And then this last question would have been happily answered. There would be no more questions. What would having everything answered mean?

Review – Songs For Sad People To Dance To by Gadget and the Cloud

Presume you exist: a request that requires you to believe things not-you exist. You, separate to the world, are capable of interacting with things not-you—another presumption. It’s a request asked by Gadget and the Cloud (Kelly Doherty), taking hold of her place as soundtrack to the scenic facade of 4, maybe 5am. There’s no dawn (emblematic of her entire album), but the sky is hinting that brightness may come—not that you fully believe in it—if only you wait for light on the horizon, waiting in time not under your control. All you know is you have to collect yourself into one sack of meat, thought and movement, and decide to act, but instead you’re caught considering who you are, where you are. Gadget and the Cloud says give me a moment, stay dissolved just a little while longer, be engaged. By who? Who knows, who cares. Isn’t this already living?

There’s a question in Gadget and the Cloud’s Songs for Sad People to Dance To (SfSPtDT, an album all questions), and it’s entirely coming from someone who’s firm on an answer: I exist, with this music as proof of a relationship to a borderline world.

Another question is whether this album is for someone, of someone, or to someone? My interaction with it changes at every step. Close listening will provide one result, another result as it seeps from the background, and hearing it post-four-beers—while typing a review—provides yet another result. Is this album meant to transport me, interrogate me, or speak for me? At some point you have to brush yourself off and walk through that front door.

This all speaks against the separation in the songs on the album. Each is different enough to bleed into your 7am, or 11am, or 8pm happily individual. The changes within each track make it so it’s not so much a conceptual album, but an album of songs made up of concepts so varying in their detail that every one could be a full album in its entirety. 3600 Seconds opens, a hint in its one hour-ness that it’s far bigger (not in sound but in thought) than its 4:09 minutes will give you. Transitions within it can be alarming or sedate, entirely dependent on your attention to it over your attention to yourself. This could be said of the entire album. If some music can be described as layered then SfSPtDT rejoices in making the layers obvious. This is the question of where you exist: ‘listening to’ versus ‘being with’ the music will give you two different results.

The crux of listening to SfSPtDT, is whether it is there to be interrogated or experienced? ‘Is your life one that happens or one you control’ is the question not asked but assumed by SfSPtDT playing through your speakers. If you’ve let Doherty take control you can question her intent or let her direct. Then, the next question, is this the way—the way she describes—the way you want to be? I’m not sure an answer can be found that unites all in Gadget and the Cloud’s music, instead it leads you to that point, if you want to be taken there, and lets you choose your own response. The middle tracks, Always, Magnitude, and So Shy, are where this is most obvious: So Shy, with vocals, eventually pushing you to decide whether the lyrics are speaking to you or for you. Two songs towards the end, Continue and This Year, re-integrate themselves into more traditional conceptions, all the stronger in how they stand in relief to your expectations, maintaining their rhythm throughout, a reward for listening. The final song, And I Told You Something True, encapsulates the journey you’ve been on. Whether that journey was profound or meandering I don’t know. Maybe Gadget and the Cloud doesn’t say, but through implications hints it can be both, and both are equally valid.

If some albums demand a generosity, to be involved with their spirit before you can appreciate them, then SfSPtDT is not one of them. It does take an open mind. A willingness to accept there’s intent, even reason, behind what may seem out of place. The overall question the album asks is are you someone separate to the music, are you within it, or does it matter when you can’t decide? The problem set by Songs for Sad People to Dance To lies at the point where you can’t bring yourself to start: who am I in response to everything around me, music and all. It doesn’t demand anything of you, and that may be its flaw. But let it question you, let it guide you, and it’ll provide: if not an answer, then at least with its rising and abrupt higher rise again, with its slow not-quite-breaking and almost instant re-building, it may pose issues in a way you never knew possible. These sincere doubts of purpose and selfhood Gadget and the Cloud embraces, and if you embrace her music you might accept these—and your—unformed parts of potential as you realise a new dawn has come, it just took your awareness.

Songs for Sad People to Dance To by Gadget and the Cloud is available on cassette and for digital download on Bandcamp.

Scroll To Top