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Xstabeth by David Keenan (Books 2020, 29)

Following on from number 27, then, we have David Keenan’s latest novel. Again we’re in a kind of magic-realist setting, without any obvious magic. In St Petersburg a young woman lives with her father, who is a failed or fading musician. The daughter — who is the viewpoint character — starts a relationship with her father’s friend, and gets pregnant. She keeps all of this from her father.

Her father, meanwhile, puts on a show at which he performs some seemingly-otherworldly music. He starts to believe that it was actually created by some sort of mystical entity called Xstabeth.

For reasons that escape me at the moment they go to St Andrews,1 where they get involved with a professional golfer. The ‘tenuous, ambiguous, confusing event’ that I referred to in the earlier note happens from this side too, but you’d only notice it if you’d read The Towers The Fields The Transmitters.

The novel is presented as if it were an academic work about a novel calle Xstabeth, by someone called ‘David Keenan,’ who killed himself by jumping from a tower in St Andrews. So there are cod-academic sections or extracts between the chapters.

It’s all very meta, and I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure I totally understood it. The strangest thing about it, in some ways, is the use of punctuation. Almost the only punctuation used is the full stop. But that doesn’t just mean he’s avoided using commas and semicolons, and constructed appropriately short sentences. It reads as if he wrote it with conventional punctuation around dialogue and so on, and then replaced every other mark with the full stop.

For example, consider this:

This is singular. He said. This is music that cannot be repeated. This is music that can never be toured. This is music that can never be applauded. I pointed out to him that there was applause on the record. Muted Applause. Awkward applause. Uncomprehending applause. But still. Applause. What is the sound of one audience member clapping. I asked him. He laughed. Yes. He said. Yes. Yes. There is no mechanic in the world for this music. He said.

A more conventional way to punctuate that and lay it out, might be:

This is singular,’ he said. ‘This is music that cannot be repeated; this is music that can never be toured; this is music that can never be applauded.’

I pointed out to him that there was applause on the record. Muted applause; awkward applause; uncomprehending applause; but still: applause.

What is the sound of one audience member clapping?’ I asked him.

He laughed. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘yes, yes. There is no mechanic in the world for this music,’ he said.

There are, of course, other ways you could present it. As an experimental way of presenting text, it’s interesting enough. I found it intruded, in that I constantly noticed it; but not so much as to be annoying. Though there were places where it was slightly confusing. I paid particular attention to it because we recently discussed ways to present dialogue on my course.


  1. Still needs an apostrophe. 

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