If you’ve never been swayed by the transcendental power of music, it may be that David Keenan’s debut novel, This is Memorial Device, will leave you cold. If you’ve never found yourself listening to an album or a song or stood at a gig thinking “oh my god, everything is fixed, I’m here because I’m supposed to be” – as one of the many characters in This is Memorial Device reports after hearing them play – then, well, we pity you and we wish you well and suggest you go looking for the music that moves you. In some ways, This is Memorial Device might be a good place for you to start because one reading of the book is as an education. There are a lot of albums (“the first Ramones album, The Sonics’ Boom, Easter Everywhere by The Thirteenth Floor Elevators… Can’s Tago Mago, Metal Box by Public Image Ltd, the first Roxy album, This Heat, Nurse with Wound, So Alone by Johnny Thunders…”, “The Modern Dance by Pere Ubu or Like Flies on Sherbert by Alex Chilton…”, “…the first Disabled Adults EP, the early Pastels singles, Subway Sect, Scrotum Poles, and The Fire Engines…”, “You ever heard of John Coltrane? … You need to listen to Ascension. You need to listen to Mediations. You need to listen to Interstellar Space”, “the first Creedence Clearwater album, Led Zeppelin II: entry level stuff”, “…bombs like the Fraction LP, Circuit Rider, DR Hooker, garage suff like The Bachs and Index and rural shit like Relatively Clean Rivers and Hickory Wind…”…), bands and musicians (Chocolate Watchband, Suicide, Stooges, Wire, Television, Gang of Four, Throbbing Gristle, “Fripp & Eno, La Monte Young, The Velvet Underground”, ), books (“…by Philip K Dick and Christopher Lasch and Albert Camus and HP Lovecraft…”, “Charles Bukowski, William fucking Burroughs. Patti fucking Smith. Jim fucking Thompson. Herman fucking Hesse…”, “Robert Crumb and Zap, stuff that you would hide under your bed”, “that book that Truffaut wrote about Hitchcock”, Edgar Allen Poe, “Gogol and Turgenev and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and Bulgakov… Chekhov and Pushkin ad Lermonov…”) mentioned herein. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. You could learn a lot.
But we get ahead of ourselves. This is the story of a (we think fictional) band, Memorial Device (“…the greatest rock group of the modern age or at least of Airdrie”), told by the people who knew them, who heard them play, who slept with them, who listened to music with them, who took drugs with them, people who loitered on the fringes of their periphery, people who lived in the same place or nearby, people who dismissed them, people who worshipped them. If you’ve ever peeked at John Robb’s excellent Punk Rock: An Oral History or read Lizzy Goodman’s equally excellent Meet Me in the Bathroom, you’ll have a partial idea of what to expect here. What you get is the story of a band told via many routes, some direct and some not so direct, some of which stand alone as short stories, some of which are interesting addendums, lists, digressions and asides. So, as you might expect, we get stories of how the members of the band came into the orbit of one another, what they did before they were Memorial Device, what some of them did after; but we also get theories “of space and time (and their relationship to thoughts and deeds)”, theories “about central heating which was like his theory about bugs which was like his theory about urine which was like his theory about sweat…”, theories in which “Men die, women exit stage left”… And that’s not to mention the times in which the language reverberates against itself, echoing and thrumming in a way that is occasionally narcotic (there are sections of the book you can imagine being recounted to you by someone off their tits, the book veering between cosmic revelation and dope smoker’s addled philosophy). The book’s subtitle – An Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978-1986 – is an important clue as to what you can expect when you read this book. All of which can best be summed up by Robert Mulligan, aka Steel Teeth, talking about his own art:
“a form o spontaneous birth that held within itsel the DNA that wid facilitate endless versions an restatements o itsel. Itsel, itsel, itsel, that’s aw ah cud think ae.”
But you could also just as easily say,
“You have to understand that when you’re talking about a local scene you’re talking about an international scene in microcosm. We had our own Syd Barrett and Brian Jones and Nico and Pete Perrett. The thing about the music scene was it fostered belief.”
In lots of ways this is the most debut-like debut novel you’re ever going to read (about a fictional possibly punk, possibly post-rock band from Airdrie), in that Keenan quite literally throws everything but the kitchen sink in here. It’s bursting at the seams with appeal for a certain kind of music/literature fan. It’s the kind of book you can imagine madly enthusing over, the kind of book you can imagine driving you mad. It’s a book awash with readerly connections (where you’ll find yourself thinking, ‘I thought I was the only one who…’ heard/read/saw that), a book that rarely says anything once when it can say it eleven times so it passes from recognition through annoyance to hilarity.
“The thing about Memorial Device was that you always had the feeling that it was their last gig ever, like they could fall apart at any moment.”
So with This is Memorial Device. You read with the sense that it could fall apart at any moment. But it doesn’t. At times, it’s majestic.
“Behind closed doors at the back ends of estates, in crumbling mansions in Clarkston and modern flats on the main street, in solitary bedsits and grim flats above chip shops there are hidden some of the most eccentric characters ever to escape from a novel; some of the greatest book collections ever thrown in skips; some of the most over-grown gardens never weeded by a salt-of-the-earth type from the East End; some of the greatest musicians; the most heartbreaking chanters; the heaviest drinkers; he least responsible workers; the slackest teachers; the most committed intellectuals; the oddest astronomers; the most obsessive collectors; the most serious amateurs; and of course the greatest failures.”
And I’ve not even mentioned bands comprised of mannequins, the music made by the organs of your body talking to one another, “the kind of spring rain that really stings and that makes you feel like you’re made of tin”. This is a book that goes on and on, that could encourage you to go on and on too. One for disciples. One for cults. One for zealots.
Any Cop?: We eagerly await what David Keenan does next. Bold and impressive debut, kids.