David Keenan’s first novel This Is Memorial Device was set in a constellation of towns in Scotland’s central belt and took the form of a fictional Festschrift for a legendary local post-punk band. His second, For The Good Times, explored the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and was narrated by a member of a Belfast chapter of the IRA with a taste for sharp suits and the songs of Perry Como.
Xstabeth, his third work of fiction, is less susceptible to straightforward precis. “I’m not 100 per cent sure,” Keenan said in an interview, “what’s going on in it myself.”
What one can say with certainty, however, is that music looms large in this novel, as it did in the earlier ones. (Keenan worked as a music journalist for 25 years.) And, at the risk of ignoring his strictures against “art that can be solved”, one could identify the mysteries of artistic inspiration and the creative process as one of Xstabeth’s central themes. That might, though, be a slightly reductive description of the way the book circles obsessively around motifs of visitation, haunting and states of grace.
The novel is framed by a metafictional conceit: the book we are reading is a self-published novel written by one “David W Keenan”, a “(non-political) writer, teacher and local historian” from St Andrews in Scotland. This David Keenan ran a correspondence course for tarot enthusiasts (the “real” Keenan also wrote an “experimental novella”, To Run Wild In It, about tarot) before committing suicide by throwing himself from the top of St Rule’s Tower in St Andrews in 1995. Xstabeth is interspersed with fragments of commentary from adepts of St Rule’s School for Immaculate Fools, which was the name “David W Keenan” gave to his tarot course.
But there is a great deal more to the book than bloodless game-playing. Its guiding thread is a story narrated by a young Russian woman named Aneliya, the daughter of a musician reduced to playing cover versions of Leonard Cohen and Nick Drake songs in the bars of St Petersburg.
Aneliya begins a love affair with a “famouser” musician friend of her father’s who dabbles in moral philosophy. She is made pregnant by him, but it is really her relationship with her father, and his relationship to the music he makes, that is the core of the novel.
The soundman working at one of her father’s gigs tells her, after a mesmeric live performance that for once was of original songs rather than cover versions, that the music “demanded to be released”. A recording of those songs enters circulation under the name Xstabeth. And a penumbra of legend and speculation rapidly accretes around the circumstances of its creation.
Father and daughter later visit St Andrews — he is, improbably enough, a golf fanatic and wants to visit the Old Course. They watch a day’s play in a tournament there, an occasion for some of the most beautiful prose in the book.
Launched from the tee, the golf ball is instantly invisible to spectators, “confused by the sky”. Watching golf live, Aneliya says, is an act of faith — “faith in the future”, in the ball’s eventually coming to rest, either in a bunker or smack in the middle of the fairway.
There is a parallel here with her father’s crisis of faith in Xstabeth, which, we come to understand, is his muse, the personification of his talent. “I have to win her back,” he says despairingly towards the end of the book.
In a record shop in St Andrews, Aneliya and her father come across a Russian pressing of the Xstabeth record. The man behind the counter puts it on. “Pure loner folk,” he says admiringly. “A genre of one.” The same might be said of this gloriously sui generis novel.
Xstabeth, by David Keenan, White Rabbit, RRP£14.99, 176 pages
Jonathan Derbyshire is the FT’s acting deputy world news editor
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