Weirdly wonderful

Keenan’s brief new novel a Joycean feast for the senses


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David Keenan’s Xstabeth is like no other novel you’ll read this year, perhaps like no other book. It’s strange, it’s funny, it’s profane, it’s mystifying, it’s challenging.

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David Keenan’s Xstabeth is like no other novel you’ll read this year, perhaps like no other book. It’s strange, it’s funny, it’s profane, it’s mystifying, it’s challenging.

An award-winning novelist with a background as a music critic, Keenan resides in Glasgow, Scotland. But he’s of Irish descent, and that’s the key. He’s clearly a kinsman of James Joyce and Flann O’Brien, admitting that, like them, he’s not very much interested in plot mechanics, or the objective realism and ideas that underpin a conventional novel. Literary modernism is his niche.

The book begins with a brief bio of David W. Keenan (note the “W”) who, it claims, wrote Xstabeth in 1992 and died by suicide in 1995. This is followed by an introduction that’s a non-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.

Heather Leigh photo David Keenan’s unconventional new novel (or anti-novel) isn’t big on plot or objective realism.

What follows is narrated by Aneliya Andropov, a free-spirited 19-year-old Russian woman whose tale makes Molly Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses look decidedly inhibited. Aneliya is torn between her love for her father, a famous musician, and her lust for her father’s best friend, Jaco, a “famouser musician” and “immoral philosopher.”

As a musician her father is past his prime, specializing mostly in covers of Leonard Cohen songs. He’s anxious, however, to stage a comeback. Jaco arranges a gig which goes terribly wrong — but maybe not.

Halfway through the book Jaco disappears after a drunken rant on Russian TV, praising immorality and toasting God at the same time. Aneliya and her father then head to Scotland for a holiday watching a golf tournament. Everyone in Russia, she says, is crazy about golf. If, by now, that old modernist gambit of the unreliable narrator hasn’t seemed obvious, this should amusingly and emphatically underline it.


In St. Andrews, Scotland, Aneliya has a perverse affair with a famous and very successful golf pro (whose name she coyly refuses to reveal). Her father takes up with another vacationer named Sheila. When the tournament ends, father and daughter return to Russia. And that’s it as far as the “story” goes.

Ten times during the course of the book Aneliya’s narrative is interrupted by some solemn interpretations of aspects of Xstabeth by other members of the St. Rule’s School of Immaculate Fools, of which David W. Keenan was also a member. They pontificate briefly on Memory, Synchronicity, Anomic Aphasia, Equilibrium, etc. in Xstabeth. Their intriguing insights may or may not be terribly helpful.

What Xstabeth ultimately feels like is the transcription of a bravura performance by a masterful ventriloquist. Keenan assumes the voices of a series of odd characters, most brilliantly the stuttery voice of the fascinating Aneliya. Her presentation is unique.

Here’s how she describes a small part of a long conversation with her father about a life’s trajectory while he’s playing his guitar and revealing the notes he’s playing:

“A man is shot from a bow. My father said. C. Did he mean the genitals. I thought to myself. A man is shot from a bow. He said. Towards what. I asked him. A minor. His fate. He said. E minor. His truth. But things get in the way. He said. Like what. I said. But I knew he would say mountains. C….”

Keenan once said that he is only “interested in the energy, velocity, inspiration and dexterity with which you can tell a tale.” He certainly delivers all of the above in Xstabeth.

While not a novel for everyone, Xstabeth is so refreshingly unique that it’s soon likely to be taught in university courses everywhere as a late modernist example of an anti-novel — or maybe the end of the novel.

Gene Walz, like many, worked diligently through Joyce’s Ulysses and struggled mightily though Finnegan’s Wake — before tossing it into a damp corner.

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