White Rabbit, £25
Review by Nick Major
Scottish novelist David Keenan’s debut novel, This is Memorial Device, was about a 1980s cult band in Keenan’s home town of Airdrie. It was also “An Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs, 1978 1986”. The operative word here being “hallucinated”: Keenan is fascinated with the occult. His second, For the Good Times, was about a jailed IRA foot soldier who recounts his time doing grubby jobs for a gang in 1970s Belfast. Last year, he published Xstabeth, about a Russian family changed by a cosmic force that pays them a visit. Monument Maker was – supposedly – written over 10 years. What is it about? After dragging myself through 800 tortuous, baffling, but occasionally enjoyable, pages, I’m not entirely sure.
The novel is divided into sections named after aspects of a cathedral: transept, nave, apse, sedilia. Within these sections Keenan uses a variety of voices, writing styles and forms, from first-person narration to transcripts of interviews and even an appendix that is a science fiction novel translated from the French by David Keenan. This jumble is further complicated by the fact that stories interpenetrate other stories within and outwith the novel (Xstabeth, for instance, turns up near the end) and narrative voices that sound like one another. The time frame also leaps about between present, past (the siege of Khartoum, for example), and the future (an astronaut in 2099).
As far as I can tell, the bulk of the novel centres on an “initiatory cult” called the Church of the First Stone of Silent Witness. The cult is formed by a sculptor called Pierre Melville, Maximilian Rehberg, a drug addict and quack philosopher, and Frater Jim, a disfigured Second World War veteran. These founders bring together “diverse weirdos from across the world” who are dedicated to “literary and historical subterranea”.
Their manifesto, Two Way Mirror, is translated by one of Keenan’s narrators, a nameless Scottish man, who also spends a great deal of time recounting a sordid summer love affair with a woman called Flower, whom he met whilst touring the cathedrals of Ile de France.
Keenan hasn’t really got much sense of pacing or scene craft; most of his writing is a kind of rambling discourse, sometimes of a pseudo-philosophical nature. He seems particularly interested in the relationship between art and life, along the lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, where the artwork preserves the object of the poet’s love. Here, for instance, is the nameless Scottish narrator:
“I intend that this book should be as a mausoleum for the two of us, and the state of our bodies, guesswork, now, buried, still entwined in each other, our very bones confused, our skulls fused in some unimaginable cataclysmic attempt at ultimate union, which is what sculpture is, which is what these language marks, carved into white by a pressure in my brain that I know can only find release in the idea of being caught up in something eternal …”
It goes on like this. Monument Maker is at least, well, original. Most contemporary fiction is insipid and formulaic; I’d rather read a confused novel like this one than something I’ve read hundreds of times before. So, Keenan deserves due credit for his ambition and fearlessness. But this doesn’t mean Monument Maker is a good book.
Keenan’s main problem is a lack of control. Ironically, one of his characters is a sculptor, a craft that requires the removal of a great amount of material to unveil a hidden form. Keenan, likewise, should have shelved pages of this book. There is an interesting novel somewhere here. It’s just difficult to find. Then again, perhaps that’s the point. Occult novels tend to be wild, messy and obscure. Give readers too much clarity, and they might see it’s all smoke and mirrors.