Monument Maker by David Keenan – dizzying thrill ride


Fictional updates

David Keenan, a former music journalist, made his fiction debut four years ago with This is a commemorative device, an oral history of a post-punk band in the Scottish suburbs in the 1980s. His later novels – which come out with impressive speed – have since led readers deeper into an increasingly idiosyncratic maze of field concerns. left.

It is true that For the good times (2019), about the IRA Men in the 1970s, could be called an anarchic black comedy quite simply, but only if you neglect the occult styles and sci-fi tint of the narrative. These are elements that, far from being a garnish, are central to Keenan’s imagination, as last year’s novel showed, Xstabeth, told by the daughter of a Russian singer-songwriter who inadvertently creates a sensitive recording that mysteriously takes control of the narrative voice.

In an age when novelists are pressured to discuss their work in terms of how it reflects their personal experience, Keenan describes his creative impulses as “a state of possession”, inexplicable even to himself (“I don’t want to art that can be solved, “he said).

Her visionary aesthetic reaches its greatest expression to date in her new novel, Monument maker, a chatty, gargantuan and ultimately elusive magnum opus written over 10 years and spanning over 900 pages, including a carefully printed 45-page dramatis personae. Sex, art and religion are his themes, obsessively encircled in an age-old tale told in a breathless register somewhere between William Blake and Arthur C Clarke.

It all starts in the company of a Viagra-powered sculptor called DK, who remembers a late-20th-century summer road trip around French cathedrals with a lover “whose butt was one of the most donkeys. most voluptuous to have ever toured the continent “. In addition to watching her sleep with other people picked up at various outdoor parties along the way, he tells us about his mentor, Pierre Melville, stonemason, poet and architect whose open relationship with a ceramist and a stripper – no one here is just a thing – mirrors that of DK.

The story revolves around a secret society that Melville forms with a mercenary named Max Rehberg, whose Pan-African wanderings uncover an anonymous first-hand account “in the Sudanese dialect” of the beheading of colonial administrator General Charles Gordon. during the siege of Khartoum in 1885.

This document is one of many ‘found’ texts that make up the novel’s intricate patchwork narrative, including a sci-fi interlude set in a climate-ravaged 2099, in which Scotland is’ now the one of the most popular wine regions in Western Europe ”.

Xstabeth took place – almost at random – in Russia, and centered with relish on the sexual desire of a young woman. If it wasn’t clear enough that Keenan doesn’t have a truck with modern arguments about cultural appropriation and the rights and wrongs of storytelling, Monument maker make it clear. “What does it mean to watch?” »Asks one of his narrators. “And close your mouth to the gendered gaze for a minute with that claptrap.”

However, given that the novel’s interest in libidinality borders on priapic, it is difficult not to wonder why we have to be told that “many women are dog lovers”, described graphically. Or to raise an eyebrow at the kind of driving insult casually thrown at a depiction of a fresco of Christ with his eyes “rolled back in his head like …”. . . the idea of ​​the ecstasy of an icy suburban housewife ”.

There is a growing sense in Keenan’s work that the reader is meant to see this as factored in – that it is the flip side of his willingness not to hold the reader’s hand when, say, the narration of the novel is finally passed on to a crypto-professor of fascist history who, under the sway of the theories of Melville and Rehberg, quits his job to investigate a suspected network of underground bunkers in Scotland.

Until then, the novel flows in a vertiginous rush, loosely knotted by the recurring appearance at various times and places of particular motifs (a white cube, a loop of pornographic sequences) which assume a power from another world. Ultimately, however, the more compulsive segment is a fairly conventional mystery embedded in a late section set in wartime Crete, involving a clairvoyant POW caught in Nazi experiments.

It’s also noteworthy that the humor of Keenan’s earlier work has largely strayed amid the sprawling narrative architecture. Times when, for example, DK tells us that his mentor once spoke about his avant-garde experiences in sculpture on the BBC talk show Pebble mill at a – a typically Keenanesque juxtaposition – are rare.

All the same, the reader who is ready to surrender to the charm of the novel receives in return the irresistible feeling – comparable to the novels of Thomas Pynchon or David Peace – of being enthroned in an obscure current of secret knowledge. And while I suspect there is nothing Keenan wishes less than writing a “timely” novel, there is something oddly contemporary about Monument makerThe emphasis is on rumor and conspiracy.

It’s safe to say, however, that your mileage may vary, and the suspicion persists that the novel’s intermittent but undeniable thrill is mostly in its rejection of anything in the middle of the road.

Monument maker by David Keenan, White Rabbit £ 25, 912 pages

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