[Editor’s note: when we reviewed Xstabeth, it came with a special advance only e-book of The Towers The Fields The Transmitters. That e-book is now fully incorporated into the paperback edition proper. We’ve edited this review a little to reflect that.]
The Towers The Fields The Transmitters first. Before anything else, you cannot help but be struck afresh every time you read a new David Keenan fiction, what a new and unusual voice Keenan has. New and unusual like David Peace was, new and unusual like Roberto Bolano. He is unlike both Peace and Bolano, of course (who are, in turn, nothing like each other) but he has their vicious audacity. His writing is unusual. It takes you to strange places and you can’t help but feel – as I felt, reading The Towers The Fields The Transmitters – he’s still new. We are still at the beginning. Where else is he going to take us?
In The Towers The Fields The Transmitters he takes us to St Andrews and Dundee. That feels ok on the surface, doesn’t it? Safe enough. North of the border from where we write this. But it isn’t. It’s a feverish landscape. A place and a narrative that reminded me of nothing quite so much as Raskolnikoff in Crime & Punishment. Our narrator is always being accused of things that he hasn’t (it seems to us) done. He’s been spotted. His crime, which he is quite open about in conversation, is harbouring inappropriate feelings for his daughter (“how I longed to be her father and her corrupter”). These inappropriate feelings seems to poison him.
He’s been sent to St Andrews in his work as an auditor (“My job was based around accounts, solutions and logistics”) and although he likes to work mostly from his rented room (where he also reads lots of books – “Were books my downfall? We can only speculate”) he is also called in to interview various members of staff at a military airfield, including a Mr McManus (who seems to have an issue with Germans and Jews) and a doodling secretary who talks like a character from Lost Highway. In the midst of his walking, he spies a woman from the corner of his eye who may or may not be his daughter (the incongruous ambiguity reminding us, as incongruous ambiguity always does, of Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled). He walks some more, he reads some more, he spies strange goings-on on the beach – and there are sentences so ripe in their strangeness as to leave you puzzling at their meaning:
“I dreamt of an ancient form of astronomy that would link the precise alignment of the teeth with the position of the stars, so that sailors were guided towards the warm flesh of the throat by canines that hung down like stalactites…”
“I imagined a hole running straight through the centre of the earth into which figures were shovelling living balls of light, a great abyss that was normally obscured by the waves but that at certain moments revealed itself and that the figures were holy men, monks, servicing this void that was always there, just beneath the waves…”
“This is a William Wilson story,” we are told at one point, a hint towards the aspect of the double, a blurring, a character who seems to be doing things we are not aware of. What is The Towers The Fields The Transmitters about? I couldn’t tell you. Whilst as a reader you always know what is actually going on (you don’t necessarily have to interpret the words), you also don’t know what is going on. The Towers The Fields The Transmitters has the lucid dream quality of an Arthur Machin story or Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle. We ended our first read intrigued, and somewhat unsure as to how this would link up (or if indeed it would) with Xstabeth.
And so to Xstabeth. Two very quick things: that title (it’s unnerving isn’t it? Although I think I know how to say it – X like the letter X and then stab-eth, like a brutal take on the end of Elizabeth – it makes me feel unsure, like there is immediately something I don’t quite get) and the design of the book (in association with the design of The Towers The Fields The Transmitters – there is something reassuring about the look and feel, as if they are books that are being reissued having been overlooked in the 40s and 50s). The whole aesthetic is arresting. We are piqued before we even begin.
In an interview for Xstabeth, Keenan has said something that feels like it will haunt him (that feels like something he will regret saying at some point when it gets hauled out for the seventieth time, or the seven hundred and seventieth time), that he no longer wants books to have a point. It’s something to have in mind with Xstabeth because, as with The Towers The Fields The Transmitters, whilst you know what is going on all the time, the writing being fairly (fairly) lucid, by the time you finish Xstabeth you realise that what you have is a random assortment of jigsaw puzzles and a job on your hands to figure out how they all come together (or if indeed they all come together or if indeed your desire to make sense of things is just, you know, bourgeois or something).
Story first, then, for those of us still stuck in those old ruts: there’s a woman called Aneliya, her father Tomasz (a famous musician) and Jaco (a “famouser” musician). Tomasz, we sense, is on the skids a bit and Jaco is willing to help him out because he fancies a slice of Aneliya. The “action” begins in Russia, transfers to St Andrews in Scotland and then returns to Russia. Jaco helps Tomasz put on a show while he gets busy with Aneliya, and then at some point the show appears as a vinyl album under the name Xstabeth, without Tomasz’s agreement. Nobody knows it’s Tomasz’s show but Tomasz. Xstabeth seems to have a life of its (her) own. Then another Xstabeth record appears, which Tomasz doesn’t really like, and which may be Jaco performing as Xstabeth. But Xstabeth seems to give Tomasz a bit of a shot in the arm. Tomasz and Aneliya go on holiday to St Andrews, meet a woman called Sheila and a famous golfer although we can’t be told who or when the meeting took place because that would make things too obvious. Tomasz finds the second Xstabeth record in a shop in St Andrews. Jaco disappears. Tomasz does another show. Meanwhile, each “chapter” begins with a ruminative foreword in which we sometimes hear from “David Keenan” or we sometimes hear about David Keenan (who died some years ago). There are ruminations on the whole idea of introductions, on ideas of grace and synchronicity and, you know, anomic aphasia. For the eagle-eyed there are slight echoes of The Towers The Fields The Transmitters (“We were next to each other. We were in each other’s space. We were far too close. How could we be so close but say nothing”)
.Periodically you’ll read a sentence and it feels like a clue but is it a clue or not? Is the simple desire to look for clues wrongheaded? You decide:
“When I tell you it like that it sounds like a dream. Doesn’t it. Like a dream full of symbols.”
“By this point I was interpreting everything.”
“Small actions are amplified. Exaggerated silent discussions take place…”
There is a sense, then, in which you need a tolerance for David Keenan. If you want a story, this may frustrate you. If you want answers, this may frustrate you. Xstabeth (and The Towers The Fields The Transmitters) is a book that you have to give yourself up to.
“I pictured the night growing eyes. Growing eyes through lust. I pictured an eye coming out of the sky. On a great stalk. Then another. And another. Then I imagined I was copulating. I imagined I was copulating with the air itself…”
Reading The Towers The Fields The Transmitters in tandem with Xstabeth doesn’t supply you with extra answers, merely more questions. “Hence this book is a requirement of grace,” we are told. And the more you read (particularly Xstabeth) the more the Bolano comparison seems apposite. Keenan feels like a Bolano if Bolano got attention for all of the early books that were published posthumously. Which may mean we never get a Keenan 2666 because Keenan is building a steady following. Unlike Bolano (and to mis-paraphrase MES), he is appreciated. Curiously, though, the puzzle that is Xstabeth is such that I think you can’t read this and feel the same appreciation you felt for This is Memorial Device or For the Good Times. This is a different kind of book(s). If you read his first two and thought you had the measure of him, Xstabeth is basically telling you you aint seen nothing yet.
Any Cop?: It’s feverish and a bit migraine-y and occasionally a bad trip but as you’d expect it’s also unusual and in many ways the book equivalent of an earworm (a headworm?) but highly likely you won’t have read much like this before.