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3 June 2023

The cult of David Keenan

How the Scottish author drew on music, drugs and violence to lead a new working-class avant-garde

By Francisco Garcia

David Keenan only began to write fiction seriously in his mid-30s. Those early attempts, however, were simply “the worst shit of all time”, the 52-year-old novelist told me over a beer on an uncharacteristically bright Glaswegian Saturday afternoon. At the time, Keenan was already a prolific and influential music critic and “evangelist” for the Wire and Melody Maker, but he felt that writing fiction was to be part of his future. So he made a vow. He would dedicate a year to the “worthless” book he was creating, before permanently erasing any trace of it.

When the self-imposed deadline came, however, Keenan had a fully-fledged novel. Yet he was a man of his word. “Not only did I delete it,” he said. “I ritualistically destroyed my laptop with a hammer. I smashed it to pieces so it could never be recovered. And that’s when I really started writing.”

It would be another decade until Keenan published his debut novel, This is Memorial Device (2017). After its release, it was clear that he had obtained something rare for any writer: a dedicated fanbase. The work is a supercharged, “hallucinated” oral history charting the brief heyday of Memorial Device, the fictional “greatest rock group of the modern age or at least of Airdrie”.

Memorial Device captures the glorious, drug-infused chaos of the Eighties post-punk scene in the small towns in North Lanarkshire, near Glasgow. With a vast array of characters – a revolving cast of freaks, dreamers, and burned-out, pissed-up or long-dead visionaries – Keenan depicts a time and place that existed, and the lingering reverberations of a legendary band that didn’t. “It’s not easy being Iggy Pop in Airdrie,” one character opines.

Subsequent novels by Keenan have since arrived at a dizzying pace. First came the Gordon Burn prize-winning For the Good Times (2019), an unhinged tale narrated by Sammy, an incarcerated IRA foot soldier who recalls the exhilarating anarchy of his life in 1970s Belfast. This was followed Xstabeth (2020), a ghostly continent-striding coming-of-age story, of sorts. Monument Maker (2021) was something else entirely, an uncompromising, 800-page postmodern epic, which seemed to record the full David Keenan cosmology.

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Last year, Kennan published Industry of Magic and Light, the prequel to This is Memorial Device, which brought the author back down to Earth. This latest work returns to the sacred ground of Airdrie, but this time taking the 1960s as the point of psychedelic departure. Reviewers have had a tendency to categorise Keenan as a writer of increasingly “difficult” fiction, but this hardly does justice to how fun his writing is.

The list of confirmed Keenan fans includes Edna O’Brien, Andrew O’Hagan and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon. The novelist Ali Smith remarked to me that Keenan’s body of work is extraordinarily diverse: one which appears “to have channelled the force and originality of both of Scotland’s electrifying times of 20th century literary renaissance – one in the 1920s and 1930s, and one in the 1970s and 1980s – and found an open form not just nourished by these… but really seminal to what will come next.”

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My first encounter with Keenan’s creative universe came in the autumn of 2019. A friend mentioned that he’d just finished an exhilarating, disquieting novel about a group of half-deranged, and often very funny, young men living in Northern Ireland during the peak of the Troubles. I bought a copy and took myself to a café. From the opening pages, it was clear that this was something different. It was something in the voice; the exuberant, rapid-fire and unmistakably Belfast voice, which ran through the book like an electric current. 

[See also: The science of fandom]

I met Keenan – dressed in a sharp suit, tweed flat cap, and wearing extravagant rings on his fingers – at Mono, an unshowy but trendy bar-meets-record store in Glasgow’s city centre, a couple of miles east from where he lives with his wife, the American musician and composer Heather Leigh. A few days prior to our meeting, a mutual acquaintance had half-jokingly warned me about the mammoth feat of transcribing I’d have on my hands after the interview. “I just like to have a conversation,” Keenan said deadpan, as we ordered our drinks.

There were no throwaway niceties. Keenan speaks as he writes: with great speed and absolute conviction. Over the course of the afternoon our conversation topics included the mystical pull of Airdrie; his lifelong fascination with the occult; his reverence of Lester Bangs, Roberto Bolaño and William Blake; and what could loosely be referred to as his writing “process” – a state he described as bursts of intense creative mania, bordering on possession. It isn’t a metaphor, he stressed, when he said that his books often feel as if they were written by an unseen force. Over the years, he has come to see them as “organisms in a way. They’re moving and pliable. You’re dealing with something that doesn’t have a fixed point.”

There was a chasm, Keenan explained, that opened up between For the Good Times and Xstabeth. “I began to write books that I could never have preconceived, which had no point and that genuinely felt like they didn’t belong to me.” In fact, Keenan insisted he had no memory of writing the latter work, instead finding it by chance on an old hard drive when his editor asked if he might have anything to contribute to a literary project, run by the late musician and DJ Andrew Weatherall. 

Keenan described his childhood as a happy one, spent with his “incredibly loving parents” in Airdrie, following a few years in the east end of Glasgow. His mother was a teacher, while his father worked in a local shoe shop, having arrived in Scotland as a young man, after growing up in the increasingly conflict-mired world of Ardoyne, a Catholic majority working-class neighbourhood in north Belfast. The male members of his father’s extended family would often visit Scotland, with Keenan’s home acting as a temporary safe haven.

“These guys,” he said, including his father, “were all illiterate. But they loved language. They’d compete to tell the best stories. Stories of the most terrible trauma. But they’d have you crying with laughter at the end of it.” His father would often tell him that books could change one’s life. “But he couldn’t read. And if he could, there was a sense that books would have let him down. So I made a vow that I’d write the kind of books that would live up to an illiterate person’s fantasy of literature.”

Gratitude, Keenan said, underpins his first two novels. Gratitude to his paternal family and to the “experiences gifted to me in Airdrie”. In primary school, Keenan’s headteacher gave him a copy of a history of the town written by a local enthusiast in the mid-1950s. It “blew my mind”, he said. “One thing was that it showed you could write about a place like Airdrie. I felt more alive being there after reading it, just walking the streets.” As a teenager in the town in the 1980s, Keenan’s Saturday afternoons were spent on the high street, watching in awe as different subcultures milled past. The “fantastic, brave people who seemed to be risking something, because they so believed in culture, in art and music”. The lesson, if one could be drawn, was that art was something to be taken seriously. A rule as true in small-town Lanarkshire, or in north Belfast, as it would be anywhere else.

[See also: How germs shape history]

For a writer with an increasingly experimental catalogue of “literary fiction”, Keenan possesses an enviably diverse and committed readership. Memorial Device, in particular, has a life far beyond the book. The fictional band has birthed Spotify playlists, T-shirts, pin badges and even a vanishingly rare EP pressed in its honour. In 2018 the Memorial Device Twitter page appeared – independent of the novel’s author and publisher – and has amassed more than 30,000 followers in the intervening years. Its steadfastly anonymous admin said of Keenan, “He is a generous, charismatic and hugely engaging personality. He could’ve been arsey about the account but he’s been totally supportive and hands-off. It’s almost an extension of the organic DIY punk ethic of the book.”

There is a sincerity to Keenan’s fiction that should not be confused with sentimentality. His characters shoot and steal, and disappear on half-demented quixotic adventures to Palestine. They spend their nights in filthy Russian strip clubs or at gigs in Kilmarnock, with support bands comprised of mismatched men and women, “who together made a noise like a fighter jet tunnelling into a mountainside in the fog at 120 miles an hour”. They might be failures, such as the naive, washed-up musician father of Xstabeth’s teenage narrator, but they tend to believe in something. An ideal, a band, or even just the horrified – and horrifying – vitality of their own violence, as with Sammy and his fellow low-level IRA gunmen in For the Good Times. Keenan’s characters are always saying yes, even when the reader might sometimes will them towards a less full-throated response.

For the Belfast-based novelist Wendy Erskine, this is one of the qualities that marks Keenan out as unique. The two became close after meeting at a 2019 event in the city. Keenan, she told me over the phone, “presents a kind of maximum velocity sincerity” and “a passionate commitment to art and life. I realise how ludicrous that sounds. And yet that is the effect he has on me. I’m usually fairly restrained and un-cosmic, but after an hour with him, I always feel full of ideas and possibility.”

It was an effect I noticed during my time with Keenan. He’d say something incomprehensible – such as his claim that he was haunted by “the endless chain of the dead behind me” during the writing of Monument Maker – and I’d find myself nodding along. “When I’m talking to you, there’s not another me behind me thinking stuff up,” he said. “It just happens. You have to let go a little bit. To have faith. You don’t have to squeeze this stuff out, or contort yourself.”

Lee Brackstone, Keenan’s longtime editor, sees Keenan’s “celebration of mystery” as one of his essential qualities. “He has a total respect and a total disrespect for genre. You don’t need to know stuff, but you need faith. And faith requires not knowing.”

“Where I am now is based on a total faith in literature,” Keenan told me as our meeting drew to a close. His father was right about its power. “My life has been changed forever. He was correct about that.”

Keenan always has new projects in development. He has plans to take the stage adaptation of Memorial Device on tour across Scotland and June will bring an updated edition of England’s Hidden Reverse, his cult classic history of the country’s cultural underground. For Keenan, writing fiction is about waiting for the right voice to take hold. And when it does, there are few experiences that compare. On beginning Xstabeth, he recalled a feeling of “somewhere between mystification and total elation. I couldn’t believe it. A fully formed book with a fully formed language, that moved me completely. I felt I was in the presence of magic.”

Francisco Garcia new book “We All Go Into the Dark” is published by HarperCollins

[See also: JB Priestley’s rules for life]

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This article appears in the 07 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Reeves Doctrine