Xstabeth, his third work of fiction, is less susceptible to straightforward precis. “I’m not 100 per cent sure,” Keenan said in an interview, “what’s going on in it myself.” What one can say with certainty, however, is that music looms large in this novel, as it did in the earlier ones. (Keenan worked as a music journalist for 25 years.) And, at the risk of ignoring his strictures against “art that can be solved”, one could identify the mysteries of artistic inspiration and the creative process as one of Xstabeth’s central themes. That might, though, be a slightly reductive description of the way the book circles obsessively around motifs of visitation, haunting and states of grace.
Aneliya’s narrative is interspersed with commentaries written by academic disciples of “David W Keenan”, an authorial alter ego who died in 1995 after setting up a school of “magick, tarot and bibliomancy”. These go off at tangents from the main narrative, musing on the nature of memory, ennui, God, rainbows. It would be a stretch to say they shed some light on the book’s cloudy depths. But they add to the sense of a synchronous world being created even as you read, where past visions spark memories that echo the present, leaping across synaptic gaps with the grace of a bird in flight.
It’s odd, to this reader at least, that Keenan’s interest in transcendence doesn’t extend to the rejection of hackneyed sexual groupthink. Everyone has their turn-ons, of course, some of which are potent precisely because they lack refinement; but it still might have been cool for this young woman to get sexually awakened without recourse to strip clubs, suspenders, punitive and painful sex acts and getting called a little bitch. Still, Keenan’s marriage of the sordid to the sublime and the erudite to the bluntly instinctual is a phenomenon to be treasured. Though possessed of a driving intensity and an abundance of ideas, his prose never feels didactic or dry.
The story of Aneliya’s story, this book you hold in your hands, has spawned a cult of its own. Its pages are interpolated by academics discussing stoner notions like synchronicity and anomic aphasia, and psychobabble about alephs, neurons and proteins. Tautly edited, the sheer stylistic euphoria of Keenan’s form seems to breathe itself to life. The real Keenan once described to me his novel about the Troubles, For The Good Times, as “an ouroboros that eats its own tail, forever”. Xstabeth is a psychedelic circle from darkness into light.
The prose has a mesmeric quality, with lots of very short sentences, often three to a line, and rhythmic repetitions. Another writer might have made Tomasz the butt of cruelty, but for Keenan, who was a music critic for many years before becoming a novelist, the also-ran is as romantic a figure as the cult hero.