Monument Maker by David Keenan review – an experimental compendium
Science fiction, theology, puzzles and a whole lot of sex … this mammoth novel is one extended stylish flourish that threatens to lose the plot
Of the ambition, intelligence and provocation of David Keenan’s mammoth Monument Maker there can be no doubt. Whether a majority of readers will enjoy the experience is another matter entirely. I ought to be the ideal reader: I admired his previous books, especially This Is Memorial Device and For the Good Times. Like his other work, this novel is avowedly experimental, pays homage to the avant garde, features science fiction and more than a little theology, and is riddled with puzzles. In some ways, especially in its obsession with paranoia, fascism, conspiracy and transgression, it can appear as a vast homage to Thomas Pynchon.
It is structured as a cathedral, the reader moving through books entitled “Nave”, “Transept”, “Apse” and “Choir”. The final pages are an index of every single character in the book. This is funny – look at the definition of King Herod, “wanted Jesus dead”, or “CIA – never the CIA”. The novel is built of interlocking novels, and is both intertextual and metatextual in making reference to Keenan’s other novels. Some readers may wish to track down the references – others may feel they are being played with out of authorial grandiosity.
It opens with a romance, in which an unnamed narrator tells of his summer love with Flower Flower, who is glossed in the closing titles as “a Flower, is a Flower, is a Flower (is)” – a wink at Gertrude Stein. This narrator is engaged in touring French cathedrals while translating a book called Full Length Mirror by an obscure and mystical architect and poet called Pierre Melville (another knowing gesture, Herman Melville being the author of Pierre: Or, the Ambiguities). The narrative is punctuated with the word “harder”, in reference both to the stones of the cathedral and his riotous sex life.
We move on to an account of the siege of Khartoum, with copious references to secret tunnels and “one book … that contains all books”. Then we encounter Rehberg, “a theologian and a soldier of fortune” in Africa, where he meets with Pierre Melville. Together they create the joint identity of Paimon to publish strange science fiction. The rest of the book then rackets around with the story of a man who has a face transplant courtesy of eccentric Nazi scientists, a whole novella by Paimon about climate change, and a divagation into a secret psychogeographical society investigating subterraneana. There is a lot of time travelling and even more discussion of time travel and prophecy.
The book does not have stylish flourishes, but is itself an extended stylish flourish. In homage to James Joyce, also referenced, there are sentences that extend to more than a dozen pages. The thing about imitating Joyce is you have to be as good as Joyce for it to work. There are repeated mentions of a strange cube across the different segments, as well as references to an organisation called SIRK which manifests itself variously as German cryptozoologists, a form of Freemasonry and an almost situationist faction of urban explorers. Another persistent leitmotif is decapitation. There are endless doubles and splits and antisyzygy (this is a Scottish novel, after all). One tic caught my eye; that the word “drool” is used so frequently. It is as if having concocted a banquet of literary offcuts (including Charles Olson, JG Ballard, William Blake, Strindberg and many others), the author can’t help salivating over his own work. There is a lot of sex, from the polymorphously perverse to the simperingly coy, but all this action has no impact on the action of the novel: these scenes are inconsequential.
Yet the good parts of this book, the parts that are more meditation than narrative, are actually very good, whether they are dealing with pyramids or mortality, Chagall, Ouspensky, Bernini, Saint Anselm, Hans Frank or Arthur Rimbaud – all fleeting presences. Towards the end there is a wonderful cadenza on whether books dream and change while they are not being read. Overall, however, there is too much self-indulgence in Monument Maker. One character says: “I began to feel like a great writer, which is the only writer, the only one who had broken the silence, the only one who had dared to sacrifice his life to the mapping of this shape of consciousness.” Well, there need to be readers as well.