David Keenan · LRB 7 October 2021 – Guide

David Keenan’s first novel, This Is Memorial Device: A Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978-86 (2017), documents the rise and fall of a fictional (though incredibly real) band called Memorial Device. Its members are from Keenan home city ​​of Airdrie – about 13 miles east of Glasgow – and the book takes the form of 26 testimonies from band members, friends, abandoned lovers, relatives, parasites and rival acts. It fell to two dedicated concertgoers, Ross Raymond and Johnny McLaughlin, to document for posterity the scene around a band that ‘sounded like Airdrie…sounded like a black hole’ as most of their bandmates ‘blew up and became social workers and courses on how to teach English as a foreign language or get a job at Greggs ‘or’ die or disappear or go into seclusion, more like ‘. airdrieonians grow up and stay put: they learn to make their own fun. (If they leave, their insular seriousness makes them vulnerable.) The book has the dirty glamor of an after-party party: pale blue light presses on drawn curtains, there’s an overflowing ashtray and crushed beer cans; the narrative tension comes from the interaction between the notions of belonging, freedom and being fatally closed. Keenan is tuned into each distinct voice, even though most of them are written in standard English. Only one – a helpless spectator of a doomed love affair – speaks directly of the Central Belt of Scotland. Chapter titles are reminiscent of song names. You can imagine a Hatful of Hollow compilation with “Rimbaud Was Desperate or Iggy Lived It” or “My Dream Bride which of course is my mother but not with a vagina please”, although the Smiths, like Joy Division, never mentioned directly (Joy Division appears briefly in the appendix). This may be because they are too obvious, too famous, too pervasive for an encyclopedic mind like Keenan’s to reference (he’s known as a rock critic). Ian Curtis appears to have been the role model for the band’s vocalist Lucas Black, whose brain condition results in short-term memory loss, hence his copious written notes. People around Black are either desperately attracted to his ‘captivating combination of, like, amazing intellect and this weird childlike quality’ or terrified of his awkwardness at the moment. Curtis also echoes Memorial Device drummer Richard Curtis, who leaves his wife (and the band) for a 20-year-old Palestinian girl after she takes off her panties to reveal a ‘bald outfit’. He promises to follow her “to the end of the world”. Keenan’s male characters are not interested in streaming services or mass-produced and discounted CDs at the charity shop. They have two copies (‘Mint or Ex +’) of each sub-underground masterpiece (on vinyl, of course): one for the county apartment in Airdrie, the other for the bunker where they will stay out of the impending apocalypse and where biker Teddy Ohm says, ‘I’m going to get some women pregnant’. It’s about taking acid just before the 1977 Belfast Clash show and not mentioning that Stiff Little Fingers – post-punk chroniclers for the Troubles – were there. It’s about sitting in a quiet pub thirty years later, at three o’clock on a weekday afternoon, talking to a barfly about that time in ’83, ’84 or ’85 when you were there to see a band that only exists. really in the minds of those who witnessed the pre-internet, pre-phone-camera world: It reminded me of being on a hill, in the dark, with a big industrial plant in the distance and just feeling this roar: this massive terrestrial vibration, as if the silence had been taken over by something that was even deeper than the silence itself, something that silence implied, in a way, as if silence were a sound and here was its foundation, this terrible traffic jam noise that seemed to come to a complete standstill, yet never stopped moving. Keenan specializes in the rare, the exclusive, the inner circle, being one of the “boys”, getting into the “fashion”. There are tickets in the final from his second novel, For the Good Times (2019), set in Troubles, which, if extracted, would sound like gobbledygook. You have to stay with 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 haven’t witnessed it – the music, the scene – firsthand, then it’s too late. Copies of his book England’s Hidden Reverse: A Secret History of the Esoteric Underground (2003) cost hundreds of pounds online, approaching four-figure territory for first-edition hardcover books. A lineup of t-shirts, the kind you get at a concert, was produced to coincide with the publication of This Is Memorial Device. One novel, The Towers the Fields the Transmitters, was available as a limited online download for those who ordered Xstabeth, which was released last year. Monument Maker, Keenan’s fifth novel, is the most insider yet. More than a decade in production, it consists of four novels crammed together like strangers in a broken elevator. The first is a kind of sex-soaked road trip through France sometime in the 1980s. Then we move to Khartoum in 1884 (just before the Berlin Conference and the division of Africa) and a novel in diary notes about the last days of General Gordon. We stay in Africa for the third section, with a man named Maximilian Rehberg, who ends up shooting (three times!) in the head. The longest section, over two hundred pages, belongs to ‘The Gospel According to Frater Jim’, a British soldier who suffers a catastrophic facial disfigurement and is thrown off a cliff by a group of Nazis. He survives and, like Candide, roams Europe, receiving a face transplant before falling back into the arms of his wife, who marries him, not realizing that this new man is actually her first husband. It’s hard to understand exactly what all this means or what it’s for. The novel’s 808 pages poke fun at limited attention spans, and the book is provocatively underprinted. Keenan wants all your time, space and energy. Monument Maker is the literary equivalent of man spread. Kaenan’s novels are not part of a series, but they are connected. Names are transferred from one book to another, linked to different characters (there is also, inevitably, a David W. Keenan). And there are repeated tropes: codified brotherhoods and homoerotic friendships, tending towards hero worship and sometimes homophobia; paternity and absence of parents. The parent theme is especially prominent. It is said that a character’s mother and father in This Is Memorial Device ‘died, one after the other, out of the blue…it was as if they had floated away or drowned in midair’. Another “didn’t give a damn if she lived or died.” But more often the parents are separated, and their adults and children’s traumas are examined in light of the parent-child relationship. After her suicide, Lucas Black’s mother changes her identity and loses her name when she is interviewed. Dead mothers are everywhere. Samuel McMahon, the narrator of For the Good Times, performs a Semtex “abortion” at the Europa hotel in Belfast, but a big explosion happens anyway (he takes responsibility for it and is considered a hero). he picks up his unexploded suitcase home to his mother’s house, slides it under the bed and forgets about him. When the rats chew the wires and the bomb explodes up the house with his mother inside, he shows no remorse or sadness. Parents are described as pathetic and clueless, or untrustworthy and desperate, or self-mutilated and emasculated. Remy, the keyboardist for Memorial Device, is said to have come from “a long lineage of homosexuals”; your father became a eunuch in a street operation… after hooking up with a bunch of underground gays who practiced stick and ball torture’. In For the Good Times, Samuel and his brother Peter were only ‘four or five’ when they discovered that their father carried a gun wherever he went, even on vacation: he used a hammer on a man trying to make an old lady out. of your pennies in an arcade. They weren’t much older when they were shown, by their smiling father, the corpse of their paternal grandfather in his open coffin. And they were still young – “all scared like little white bunnies” – when they removed the tightly wrapped barbed wire from their father’s penis after he returned, weak and bloodied, from a ritual self-mortification spell he warned them they would also do one day You have to practice. In Monument Maker, ‘Holy’ Maximilian Rehberg fails to euthanize his desperately ill father before shooting himself. Incapable of ‘true and supreme compassion’, he philosophizes about love while his father convulses in terminal agony. Electra’s complexes and her father’s problems are most evident in Xstabeth. The action starts in St. Petersburg. The narrator, Aneliya, is the daughter of a failed musician who still hopes to achieve greatness. Aneliya’s mother is dead. Only when she becomes pregnant does her father explain how her mother died, singing on his guitar, but he doesn’t go into details. When Aneliya is asked about her mother, she lies: ‘She was murdered on her honeymoon. I said. I was twisting the facts for no reason. Her partner put his foot on her head. We assume that at some point at least Aneliya went to bed with her father; perhaps it is a perennial arrangement. ‘I wrapped my legs around him,’ she said, congratulating him after he was booked for the show whose secret recording came to be known as ‘Xstabeth’. She knows she won’t be able to attend as she has an illicit date planned with her father’s best friend, a ‘famous’ musician nicknamed Jaco: ‘I imagined him passing me on to the most famous musician in exactly the same position. ‘ After his father thinks the show was a failure, he starts to cry, with his head in his lap. She feels like she’s being ‘hit… between these two men like a tennis ball’. She spends her father’s summer vacation in St Andrews to coincide with a golf tournament. On the beach, she watches him ‘standing in the water with the gentle waves lapping. Licking his legs and in his dark shorts. His dark shorts with white drawstring. She meets a famous golfer, who starts her affair by telling her: ‘I want to do it with you up the shit’, goading her to call him ‘Daddy’ and pimping her, pressing her – pregnant, by this time – to sleep with everyone she sees. ‘But not in the ass,’ he tells her. ‘That’s the rule. I get the ass later. ‘I wasn’t sure I really wanted to,’ she reflects. ‘But I was responding to the situation.’ On the same holiday, his father meets a new woman named Sheila. ‘You’re good in bed,’ she tells him. ‘But I already knew that,’ says Aneliya.

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