Keenan’s Brief New Novel, a Joycean Feast for the Senses
David Keenan’s Xstabeth is unlike any other novel you will read this year, perhaps like any other book. It’s weird, it’s funny, it’s profane, it’s mystifying, it’s empowering.
An award-winning novelist with a background in music criticism, Keenan resides in Glasgow, Scotland. But he’s of Irish descent, and that’s the key. He’s clearly a relative of James Joyce and Flann O’Brien, admitting that, like them, he’s not much interested in plot mechanics, or the objective realism and ideas behind a conventional novel. Literary modernism is his niche.
The book begins with a brief biography of David W. Keenan (note the “W”) who he claims wrote Xstabeth in 1992 and committed suicide in 1995. This is followed by an introduction which is not a introduction because, as the writer explains, she prefers to introduce the book at its end – where she doesn’t. From the outset, skepticism is encouraged.
The following is narrated by Aneliya Andropov, a free-spirited 19-year-old Russian woman whose story makes Molly Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses looking decidedly inhibited. Aneliya is torn between her love for her father, a famous musician, and her desire for her father’s best friend, Jaco, a “more famous musician” and “immoral philosopher”.
As a musician, his father was past his prime, specializing primarily in covers of Leonard Cohen songs. He is eager, however, to stage a comeback. Jaco organizes a concert that goes terribly wrong – but maybe not.
Halfway through the book, Jaco disappears after a drunken rant on Russian television, praising immorality and toasting God at the same time. Aneliya and her father then travel to Scotland for a vacation watching a golf tournament. Everyone in Russia, she says, is crazy about golf. If by now this old modernist gamble of the unreliable narrator hasn’t seemed obvious, this should underscore it in a fun and emphatic way.
In St. Andrews, Scotland, Aneliya has a perverted affair with a famous golf pro (whose name she shyly refuses to reveal). Her father bonds with another vacationer named Sheila. At the end of the tournament, father and daughter return to Russia. And that’s all as far as “story” is concerned.
What Xstabeth ultimately resembles the transcription of a brave performance by a masterful ventriloquist. Keenan takes on the voices of a series of odd characters, most brilliantly the stuttering voice of the mesmerizing Aneliya. His presentation is unique.
Here’s how she describes a small part of a long conversation with her father about the trajectory of a lifetime as he plays his guitar and reveals the notes he plays:
“A man is shot with a bow. My father said. C. Did he mean the genitals. I said to myself. A man is shot with a bow. He said. Towards what. I asked him. A minor. His destiny. He said. E minor. Its truth. But things get in the way. He said. Like what. I said. But I knew he would say mountains. VS….”
Keenan once said he was “only interested in the energy, speed, inspiration and dexterity with which you can tell a story”. It certainly delivers all of the above in Xstabeth.
Although this is not a novel for everyone, Xstabeth is so refreshing and unique that it is likely to soon be taught in university courses around the world as a late modernist example of an anti-novel – or perhaps the end of the novel.
Gene Walz, like many, worked diligently on Joyce’s Ulysses and fought hard on Finnegan’s Wake – before tossing it into a damp corner.