David Keenan on This is Memorial Device
Author Andrew O'Hagan suggested he wouldn't like anyone who doesn't love it, claiming it 'the sound of young Scotland distilled' – This is Memorial Device, David Keenan's hallucinatory and musical debut. The author waxes lyrical and lairy with The Skinny
“People who have so much belief in what’s happening that they don’t wait for it to be validated. I admire that the most, they have my heart.” It’s a truth which sits central to David Keenan’s writing, and to his life. He’s spent his career as a critic seeking out the music being made where no-one’s listening, while also making some noise of his own as a member of various experimental bands. Over the last decade, he’s written novel after novel without seeking publication or outside appraisal, just writing and writing until the writing was right.
Fittingly, the first of his works to be thrown out into the big wide world is a howling testament to this ‘art for art’s sake’ mantra and his debut has not only drawn comparisons to David Foster Wallace but, having been submitted by a first-time novelist without a literary agent, also convinced legendary publishing house Faber and Faber to take it based on nothing but the work’s own power. In short, This is Memorial Device looks set to be the first best thing you read in 2017.
Sheltered from the Glasgow winter by the hipster haven of BrewDog’s Merchant City bar, Keenan sits down with The Skinny for a discussion that loops Blaise Cendrars, Herman Melville and George Best to home in on ideas about life, art and where the two intersect. The whole scene would slot neatly into his debut novel – an earnest philosophical dialogue in gruff Scottish tones against a background of clinking bottles. This is Memorial Device tells the story of a group of 70s post-punk musicians making wildly ambitious, experimental music in their hometown of Airdrie. The novel and the conversation both wander off in multiple directions but they return home time and again to the question of how to make that marriage of art and life work – how to merge the books you read with the bars you read them in, the inner world with the outer, the Romantic with the everyday.
Keenan’s novel begins with a mission statement that reads a little like a less sarcastic take on Trainspotting’s famous 'choose life' opening riff, with the narrator asserting all the reasons why he needed this story to be told – “I did it to stand up for Airdrie.” Keenan himself echoes this statement early into our first pint, attesting that “I wanted to rescue small working class towns from the shit that’s usually hung on them or what they ‘stand for.’
"I guess that’s what I mean by standing up for Airdrie – rescuing it from fucking critical studies and saving it for art. I didn’t want to write this very clichéd 'isn’t it hard to grow up in a working class town in Scotland' thing. It’s so easy to play that card, especially as a Scottish writer. My experience was extremely positive and – a word you wouldn’t think of using with Airdrie – very romantic. So I wanted the book to be a romance, a romantic vision of a small town.”
The story of Memorial Device
The harshly factual world of 70s Airdrie is used as the setting for an entirely fictitious story – that narrator is not Keenan or an autofictitious avatar and that scene did not exist, hence the book’s self-description as An Hallucinated Oral History. Rather than sticking to the facts, cutting the fat and shining them up to form a tidy version of his own upbringing in the west of Scotland, Keenan’s novel forms a fictional route towards the truth of what that time and place was for him. “I think it was truer to the arc of the times and to the place to actually be less realistic” explains Keenan, “because on the one hand the whole book is a memorial device so it’s refracted through memory which tends to conflate and idealise and make things more surreal or unreal, but also because it was a strange time where you felt like maybe impossible things were possible.”
Growing up in a small town often comes with a heavy sense of dislocation from the wider world, a feeling that you’re cut off from the places where things are really happening, but for Keenan this sense of exile wasn’t a source of oppression or alienation but of total liberation: “It seemed impossible to succeed in the wider world. I mean, Airdrie is such a small town that Glasgow seemed impossible. London was out of the question. So you got done with those ideas very quickly and you’re kind of beyond the influence of the mainstream media.” Keenan and the characters of his novel didn’t see the rock’n’roll images beamed into their lives by the media as a glitzy wider world to desperately strive after but a realm so far from their own reality that it became a fiction they could absorb and live out on their own terms. “You outstrip possibility by hallucinating from your little cut-off position,” says Keenan. “It’s a very liberating position to be in and to act from, I think.”
The young man who reads deep from the literature of his romantic heroes and tries to impose their ideals onto the everyday matter of his own life is a staple of the literary canon – Memorial Device is essentially a continuation of this tradition in a very different setting, the story of a group of young men and women who tried to live out their larger than life, punk-infused ideals in their small Scottish town. “There’s all these people in Airdrie acting like Brian Jones and Iggy Pop but in a way they were outstripping their heroes because it’s even harder to be Iggy Pop in Airdrie,” say Keenan.
That ability to live beyond the world that’s put in front of you is the essence of Keenan’s novel and of his own personal philosophy. Though the book is always grounded in its highly specific Scottish geography (with the brief forays into London and Paris which no tale of aspiring Romantics could be without), Keenan admits: “Ultimately it’s not even about Airdrie any more, it’s about the experience you can bring to where you are.”
"Airdrie was the centre of the world..."
Beyond the specific desire to rescue Airdrie itself, Memorial Device is about the transformative, Romantic mindset which rescued it for Keenan and its capacity to turn almost anywhere into the place. Explaining it more lyrically, Keenan affirms: “The centre of the world is everywhere, and the circumference is nowhere. So exactly where you are is the centre. But it can be hard to see that.” The heroes of Memorial Device make Airdrie the centre of the world by pure force of will, by their complete confidence that the art they’re making is massive, the scene they’ve created monumental. “The realisation comes that there was a moment there. Some of us were able to occupy it fully, some of us weren’t able to see it until afterwards but it was there. The magic was there and, for a little bit of time for this group of players, Airdrie was the centre of the world.”
In a digital age where we spend our days with one eye on devices hooked up to the free-floating, global world of the internet, it can often seem like a thing only matters if the whole world pays attention. If your views aren’t in the hundreds of thousands, if you haven’t gone viral, if Buzzfeed hasn’t made a list about you then why did you even bother? The sense that everything real is going on somewhere else gets all the more pervasive in an ever shrinking world – Keenan’s novel is a mad-eyed, dark-humoured, plain-spoken tribute to all that can be achieved and experienced if you chose instead to fully occupy where you are, wherever that is.
With his emphasis on DIY art and lack of concern for commercial or critical appreciation, it might be harder for a writer like David Keenan to measure whether his debut novel goes down as a success or a failure. Asked about what he hopes it will achieve, he answers with the brazen, rough-edged romance that burns through his book – “To help you to transform your own reality, to see the potential for your own hallucination. To see that your own reality is not bounded by the workaday, even if you live in one of these towns that are constantly being defined as grim, spirit-crushing reality, that it is possible to transcend that.
"It’s your own personal hallucination, it’s the way you see your own life. We don’t all need to be artists – God knows we don’t need a world full of artists – but people who are able to transform their own reality and feel like it’s their reality to transform, I think that’s a big thing.”