A review of David Keenan's Xstabeth

(this review has avoided making aspects of the plot explicit, but does quote from the text)
"Anomic aphasia is the feeling that a word is on the tip of your tongue. It is a feeling where a word becomes a sensation, an entity, a ghostly presence whose shape and form you are aware of and yet whose word you are unable to speak."
from p.41, 'Anomic Aphasia' in Xstabeth by Denise Kaufman (SR | SIF)

Xstabeth by David Keenan is a novel, but it feels not so much like a story as a dream, or more precisely, a prolonged incantation. I noted this down before I finished the book, then went back and read the two short forewords by Lee Brackstone and David Keenan, and saw that this work had been written in a sort of haze, and had gone largely unremembered by the author. This is art imitating life. You will feel this quality within every section. Throughout the book, I was continually reminded of ‘The Stranger Explained’ by Sartre, as so much of what is said about Camus’ novel in that essay could also apply to Xstabeth, despite the books not bearing great resemblance to each other. Sartre states:

“The absurdist creator has lost even the illusion that his work is necessary. On the contrary, he wants us to be constantly aware of its contingency. He would like to give it the epigraph, ‘might never have been’, just as Gide wanted to add at the end of The Counterfeiters the message, ‘could be continued’. It might not have been, like this stone, this stream, or this face. It is a present that is simply given, like all the world’s presents … the work of art is merely a leaf torn from a life. It does indeed express that life: but it might not have done so. Moreover, everything is equivalent: writing Dostoyevsky’s The Demons or drinking a coffee.”

This is Xstabeth. Things happen, or seem to, might have, might not have, and they may be seen as portentous, or symbolic, or they may not, but the book simply exists. Its power is that it cannot be fixed as any of these things at any time. Its beauty is that this does not matter; each moment and each sentence and each opening of possibility is pleasure.

The main difference that can be drawn between a novel like The Stranger and Keenan’s Xstabeth is that, as noted by Sartre in the given quotation, Camus’ novel derives its absurdity from taking place in the present-tense, whereby events will swirl around the narrator, outwith his control and his knowledge. Xstabeth is given to us in the past-tense, which only serves to heighten the sense of ‘might never have been’. It is not merely that the world is absurd, it is that the telling of it is too.

Our narrator narrates consciously, addresses the reader, mediates the story, is selective with events, but at no point are we ever sure why – who is she speaking to, to what end, and why this story? Why these details? Why this trajectory? But as Sartre says, “it does indeed express that life”. Amidst the mystery and dream-like sequences, there are moments of incredibly lucid and powerful emotion expressed here, a very real and true humanity – and all the more potent for their transient presence within the text.

Near the start of the narrator’s relationship with Jaco, she comments:

“But then I realised that attractive young people are endlessly deep to older people. They are literally unfathomable. You’re unfathomable Aneliya. The famouser musician would say to me. That’s just the word he used. And then I thought no. It’s just because I echo. It’s just because I’m empty enough to echo. Sometimes it was awkward. Sometimes I had nothing to say and I would just hang on the line in silence. But then I learned that if I did that. If I did that he would fill the gap with compliments and echoes. He compared me to certain months. To the beauty of a wild mountain.” (p.12)

There is so much reality to this evocation of a burgeoning relationship between a younger person and a much older, more worldly one. This power dynamic will be immediately familiar to many, and this expression of it, as “echoing”, as being considered (or patronised) as unfathomable by someone who will project onto you, flatter you – and as we see later with Jaco, it’s all for unsurprising reasons. This occurs on the same page-spread as the very poignant juncture where she turns away a childhood friend who has not yet joined the adult word: “I stared out of the window and saw Tiny Marja disappear like a speck of dust.” It is writing of such high calibre – seemingly simple sentences that carry with them so much of a life lived. And although there’s markedly less humour than in Keenan’s previous novels, he does manage to include moments that will make you stop and smile – horny Jaco failing to understand an invitation for some sex-talk puns (p.101) being one such incident (I won’t explicate here and ruin it).

The excerpt I gave should provide an idea of the style of the prose; it is very much impressionistic rather than adhering to a fidelity of events in experiential / linear fashion. At many points, mostly in the novel’s final third, the style feels very ‘Beckettian’ to me; the prose had that same movement from sentence to sentence, from island to island, conception to conception, that only the greatest impressionistic writing can really capture:

“He had called me the perfect Russian whore. The famous golfer. Now I was lonely. Not me. But I mean the me that watched me. She was lonely as she watched. I could tell. Don’t ask me how. I had just come to the point. That’s all. Baby. I said into the night. Baby. I said into the empty street. And the echoing walls. And the ruins. Baby. Is there anything I can do for you. But nothing. There was nothing. I was a ghost now. I had died. Remember. Then I began to notice things. Things like shadows creeping over walls. Things like the silhouettes of birds on high walls. Things like flowers sighing.” (p.147)

I return again to ‘The Stranger Explained’, where Sartre describes “the discontinuity of his chopped-up sentences, which precisely apes the discontinuity of time”. You can see in this extract how Xstabeth operates, in the same flow we go between different discourses, different narrative plains, “we tumble from sentence to sentence, from void to void” (Sartre), moving between memory, utterance, conceptual thought, concrete thought, emotion, impression, never being solidly rooted in defined reality but caught in the strange, beauteous dreams of our girl.

Xstabeth is not a book in the warm, clear water of 'This Is Memorial Device', nor in the frothing swirl of 'For The Good Times', it is something else. It is an artist allowing himself to swim further, into a deeper place, where you rely on feeling more than cognition. Yet it is unmistakeably David Keenan. It is immediately and fully of his canon. Of that very rare thing – a contemporary writer who appears to be writing books primarily for joy. It is an exploration. And I’m so very glad we're on the journey with him.

I conclude with an excerpt from ‘Ennui in Xstabeth’ by Patricia Waters (SR | SIF), from near the end of the book. It is what makes this book and all great books worth reading – the description is perfect, of that …

“… quality that makes it feel like you’re experiencing the interstices of the world, the waste ground of the world, the abandoned car parks of the world, the dirty windows of the world, the moment between moments of the world, the mindlessly-walking-towards-something-from-something of the world …” ●

Brian Hamill
September 2020