David Keenan’s first novel, This Is Memorial Device: An Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978-86 (2017), documents the rise and fall of a fictitious (though awesomely real) band called Memorial Device. Its members are from Keenan’s home town of Airdrie – about thirteen miles east of Glasgow – and the book takes the form of 26 testimonies from band members, friends, jilted lovers, relatives, hangers-on and rival acts. It has been left to two dedicated gig-goers, Ross Raymond and Johnny McLaughlin, to document for posterity the scene surrounding a band that ‘sounded like Airdrie … sounded like a black fucking hole’, since most of their peers ‘went off and became social workers and did courses on how to teach English as a foreign language or got a job in Greggs’ or ‘died or disappeared or went into seclusion, more like’. Airdrieonians grow up and stay put: they learn to make their own fun. (If they do leave, their insular earnestness makes them vulnerable.) The book has the dirty glamour of an after-party: pale blue light presses at closed curtains, there’s an overflowing ashtray and crushed beer cans; the narrative tension comes from the interplay between notions of belonging, freedom and being fatally penned in. Keenan is attuned to each distinct voice, even if most of them are written in standard English. Only one – an impotent bystander to a doomed love affair – speaks straight from Scotland’s Central Belt.
The chapter titles are reminiscent of song names. You can imagine a Hatful of Hollow-ish compilation featuring ‘Rimbaud Was Desperate or Iggy Lived It’ or ‘My Dream Bride Which Is Of Course My Mother but Not with a Vagina Please’, though the Smiths, like Joy Division, are never mentioned directly (Joy Division appear briefly in the appendix). This might be because they are too obvious, too famous, too thinly spread for an encyclopedic mind like Keenan’s to reference (he is well known as a rock critic). Ian Curtis seems to have been the model for the band’s lead singer, Lucas Black, whose brain condition results in short-term memory loss, hence his copious written notes. The people around Black are either hopelessly attracted to his ‘endearing combination of, like, startling intellect and this weird childlike quality’ or freaked out by his in-the-moment oddness. Curtis also has an echo in Richard Curtis, the Memorial Device drummer, who leaves his wife (and the band) for a twenty-year-old Palestinian girl after she takes down her knickers to reveal a ‘bald fact’. He vows to follow her to ‘the end of the world’.
Keenan’s male characters aren’t interested in streaming services or mass-produced, discount-stickered CDs from the charity shop. They own two copies (‘Mint or Ex+’) of every sub-underground masterpiece (on vinyl, obviously): one for their council flat in Airdrie, the other for the bunker where they’re going to sit out the imminent apocalypse and where the biker Teddy Ohm says, ‘I’m gonna impregnate me some women.’ It’s about dropping acid just before the Clash gig in Belfast in 1977 and not mentioning that Stiff Little Fingers – post-punk chroniclers of the Troubles – were there. It’s about sitting in a quiet pub thirty years later, at three o’clock on a weekday afternoon, talking with a barfly about that time in ’83, ’84 or ’85 when you were there to see a band that only really exists in the minds of those who witnessed the pre-internet, pre-phone-camera world:
It reminded me of standing on a hill, in the dark, with a big industrial plant in the distance and just feeling this roar: this massive earthly vibration, like the silence had been taken over by something that was even deeper than silence itself, something that silence implied, in a way, like silence was a sound and here was its underpinning, this terrific gridlocked noise that sounded like a complete standstill even as it never stopped moving.
Keenan specialises in the rare, the exclusive, the inner circle, in being one of ‘the Boys’, in getting ‘in’. There are passages towards the end of his second novel, For the Good Times (2019), set against the backdrop of the Troubles, that if extracted would sound like gobbledygook. You’ve got to hang around these people for a while if you want to roll with them, be part of their club, be trusted with their secrets. Keenan’s narratives often suggest that if you didn’t witness it – the music, the scene – first-hand, then it’s too late. Copies of his book England’s Hidden Reverse: A Secret History of the Esoteric Underground (2003) go for hundreds of pounds online, approaching four-figure territory for first-edition hardbacks. A line of T-shirts, the sort you might get at a gig, was produced to coincide with the publication of This Is Memorial Device. A novel, The Towers the Fields the Transmitters, was available as a limited online download for those who pre-ordered Xstabeth, which came out last year.
Monument Maker, Keenan’s fifth novel, is his most insidery yet. More than a decade in the making, it consists of four novellas huddled together like strangers in a broken lift. The first is a sort of sex-drenched road trip through France some time in the 1980s. We then shift to Khartoum in 1884 (just before the Berlin Conference and the division of Africa) and a novella in diary entries about the last days of General Gordon. We remain in Africa for the third section, with a man called Maximilian Rehberg, who ends up shooting himself (three times!) in the head. The longest section, at more than two hundred pages, belongs to ‘The Gospel According to Frater Jim’, a British soldier who sustains catastrophic facial disfigurement and is thrown off a cliff by a group of Nazis. He survives and, Candide-like, makes his way around Europe, receiving a face transplant before landing back in the arms of his wife, who marries him, not realising that this new man is actually her first husband. It’s difficult to grasp exactly what all this means or what it’s for. The novel’s 808 pages make a mockery of straitened attention spans, and the book is provocatively underedited. Keenan wants all your time, space and energy. Monument Maker is the literary equivalent of manspreading.
Keenan’s novels aren’t intended as part of a series, but they are connected. Names carry over from book to book, attached to different characters (there is also, somewhat inevitably, a David W. Keenan). And there are repeated tropes: coded brotherhoods and homoerotic friendships, tending towards hero-worship and sometimes homophobia; parenthood and parentlessness. The parent theme is especially prominent. The mother and father of a character in This Is Memorial Device are said to have ‘died, one after the other, just like that … it was like they floated away or drowned on thin air.’ Another’s ‘couldn’t give a toss whether she lived or died’. But more often parents are separated, and their grown-up children’s traumas are examined in the light of the parent-child relationship. After his suicide, Lucas Black’s mother changes her identity and goes unnamed when interviewed. Dead mothers are everywhere. Samuel McMahon, the narrator of For the Good Times, carries a Semtex ‘abortion’ into Belfast’s Europa hotel, only for a huge blast to go off there anyway (he claims responsibility for it and is hailed a hero). He takes his unexploded suitcase home to his mother’s house, slides it under his bed and forgets about it. When mice chew through the wires and the bomb blows up the house with his mother inside, he shows no remorse or sadness.
Fathers are depicted as pathetic and clueless, or untrustworthy and despairing, or self-mutilating and emasculated. Remy, the keyboardist in Memorial Device, is said to have come ‘from a long line of homos’; his ‘father had become a eunuch in a backstreet operation … after hooking up with a bunch of subterranean gays who practised cock and ball torture’. In For the Good Times, Samuel and his brother, Peter, were just ‘four or five’ when they discovered that their father carried a weapon wherever he went, even on holiday: he used a hammer on a man trying to do an old lady out of her pennies in an arcade. They weren’t much older when they were shown, by their grinning father, their paternal grandfather’s dead body in its open casket. And they were still young – ‘all scared like little white rabbits’ – when they picked tightly wrapped barbed wire out of their father’s penis after he returned, faint and bloody, from a spell of ritual self-mortification that he warned them they too would one day have to practise. In Monument Maker, ‘Holy’ Maximilian Rehberg fails to euthanise his hopelessly ill father before shooting himself. Incapable of ‘a true and supreme compassion’, he philosophises on love while his father convulses in terminal agony.
The Electra complexes and daddy issues are most overt in Xstabeth. The action opens in St Petersburg. The narrator, Aneliya, is the daughter of a failed musician still clinging to the hope he might achieve greatness. Aneliya’s mother is dead. It isn’t until she becomes pregnant that her father explains how her mother died, by singing it on his guitar, but he doesn’t go into detail. When Aneliya is asked about her mother, she lies: ‘She got murdered on her honeymoon. I said. I was twisting facts for no reason. Her partner put his foot on her head.’
We assume that at some point, at least, Aneliya has been to bed with her father; perhaps it is a perennial arrangement. ‘I wrapped my legs around him,’ she says, congratulating him after he is booked for the gig whose secret recording comes to be known as ‘Xstabeth’. She knows that she won’t be able to attend, since she has an illicit date planned with her father’s best friend, a ‘famouser’ musician nicknamed Jaco: ‘I imagined him passing me over to the famouser musician in exactly the same position.’ After her father judges the gig to have been a failure, he breaks down in tears, his head in her lap. She feels she is being ‘batted about … between these two men like a little tennis ball’. She spends a summer holiday with her father in St Andrews, to coincide with a golf tournament. At the beach, she watches him ‘standing in the water with the soft waves lapping. Lapping around his legs and with his dark trunks on. His dark trunks with the white pull-string.’ She meets a famous golfer, who initiates their affair by telling her: ‘I want to do you up the shitter,’ urging her to call him ‘daddy’ and pimping her out, pressing her – pregnant, by this point – to sleep with everyone she sees. ‘But not in the arse,’ he tells her. ‘That’s the rule. I get the arse afterwards.’ ‘I wasn’t sure if I really did want it,’ she reflects. ‘But I was responding to the situation’. On the same holiday, her father meets a new woman called Sheila. ‘You’re good in bed,’ she tells him. ‘But I knew that already,’ Aneliya says.
The best of Keenan’s novels so far, For the Good Times, is also his most formally conventional; it builds a ferociously readable narrative from illiteracy, mental illness, sexual entitlement, classic menswear, torch songs and sectarian violence. He doesn’t have to go to any effort to reconstruct the atmosphere of the Troubles: we know it was hell, so we accept the screwdriver-in-the-eye moments of extreme violence as we do those in Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings:
All my cousins moved away, eventually. Looking for work and a place to settle down that wasn’t a fucking war zone. They went to Glasgow and Birmingham and Liverpool and London and the Isle of Man. We were just the dirty Irish, filthy Tims, ignorant Micks, fucking daft Paddies, lower down the pecking order than blacks or dogs. And it kept happening, all over again. People were getting burned out their houses every day of the week. People were getting shot down in the street. People were getting dragged by the hair along the pavement, bloodied and screaming into army vehicles, I saw it myself, locked up for defending your own neighbourhood. I looked at the Union Jack and forgive me, son, but all I saw was a swastika. I looked at the red hand of Ulster and to me it was nothing but a blood-soaked Sieg Heil.
Not coincidentally, the most successful section of Monument Maker – the one concerning General Gordon – is also pegged to real events. A historical backdrop gives Keenan’s work the base notes lacking elsewhere. Unfortunately, he is most interested here in disorienting his readers. Long passages begin with interesting statements that fritter to nothing. Multiple pages are given over to single sentences into which are crushed all dialogue and incidentals. These sentences are punctuated only by commas – three or four words then a comma, a maddeningly repetitive phrase then a comma, until the reader is begging for a full stop. Eventually, I was seeing only the commas, all other meaning having departed, along with my patience. The final part of the book is incomprehensible.
It’s clear that, for great stretches of Monument Maker, Keenan is choosing to mutilate his prose, because at other points he proves himself capable of writing brilliantly on art, architecture, music, literature, religion, the occult. What is far less clear, across all his work, is why he takes such pleasure in the expression of ugly social attitudes. His female characters are childlike, intellectually subordinate, easily manipulated and frictionlessly fucked, helpless against and subservient to the abusive patriarchal instinct – or else they’re tight-mouthed ‘lesbians’ who won’t give head. A third, and more elusive, type is unattainable or dead (or both). We become better acquainted with certain (blonde) female characters’ vaginas than with their faces (‘The lips of her labia are felt-grey, mouse-eared. When she opens, she opens like a butterfly’; ‘Afterwards, she sat on a footstool and displayed her newly shaved pussy to me’). Few of them articulate more than a moan.
We should be careful not to conflate an author’s views with what is depicted in their work, but if there is any irony here I have failed to spot it. Keenan won’t mind that. ‘Shut your mouth about the gendered gaze for a minute, with all that claptrap,’ he tells the reader part way through Monument Maker. Is there anything interesting beyond the I-don’t-give-a-fuck, open-shirted, one-of-those-beards male posturing?
If anything, people of colour get it worse than women in these books, dashed (and bumped) off as stereotypes and easy prey. The unnamed Chinese man in This Is Memorial Device who is immediately bludgeoned to death, apparently for japes, by a flying lump of concrete supposedly too heavy to lift, owns – surprise! – a restaurant. Assif’s father owns – surprise! – a corner shop (which is broken into: the Boys know he won’t do anything silly like pressing charges, so they sit in the broken glass and drink, smoke and microwave burgers until they’re found the next morning asleep in their own sick). Fists and jaws clench at the merest whisper of a person of colour in the neighbourhood, even if Tommy, the narrator’s hero and friend in For the Good Times, ‘looks like a fucking negro. The only negro in Belfast.’ Apart from a few faceless figures in a paragraph describing a trip to Nigeria in This Is Memorial Device, there isn’t a single Black person to be found in Keenan’s first three novels, though this absence is a presence of sorts, and Keenan uses his fiction for mischief: he deliberately misnames Donna Summer, calls Stevie Wonder ‘the most depressing music ever’, confuses Bob Marley with Bob Dylan – both names used interchangeably to pin down a dreadlocked ‘dark-skinned’ DJ – and dismisses a shared milestone in African American/Jewish American history as ‘that song, the one about strange fruit’. In Monument Maker there is a lament for the Black GIs who fought in the Second World War, but it is inconsequential, apropos of nothing, hypocritical and insulting, especially in light of Keenan’s refusal to name any of the Black walk-on characters in the novel. Only John Coltrane – whose work is likened to Russian literature in translation – passes the ‘cool’ test in the world where David Keenan is God.