In the Critics this week

Ali Smith, John Burnside, China Miéville, Toby Litt, Ryan Gilbey and Will Self.

The centrepiece of the Critics section in this week’s New Statesman is “Say I won’t be there”, a new short story, written exclusively for the NS, by novelist Ali Smith. In Books, the NS’s nature columnist John Burnside reviews Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: a Journey on Foot. “With the possible exception of memoir,” Burnside writes, “no other literary form is more revealing of its author’s pretensions than nature writing.” However, Macfarlane mostly avoids the besetting sins of the genre in Burnside’s view. “Intrepid and well-informed he may be, but there is no sense of ego here …” He is, Burnside writes, “our finest nature writer”.

In the Books Interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to China Miéville about his new novel Railsea, in which the action of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is transposed from the sea to the railway and the whale is replaced by a giant mole. “I first read [Moby-Dick] when I was about 17 and I was really blow away by it,” Miéville says. “I like very much that sort of hypnotic, overwrought, very lush prose.” Asked about his relationship to the science fiction and fantasy communities, Miéville says: “The level of seriousness with which books are treated at some of the science-fiction conventions puts a lot of conventional literary festivals to shame. At the same time, I get very exasperated with certain aspects of geek culture.”

Also in Books: Toby Litt reviews Ben Marcus’s novel The Flame Alphabet; Jonathan Beckman on Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai; Felix Martin on Economics After the Crisis by Adair Turner. PLUS Sophie Elmhirst’s Word Games column – this week her word is “Jubilee”.

Elsewhere in the Critics: Yo Zushi on the enduring influence of Alex Chilton and Big Star; Rachel Cooke on the mysterious charms of Rory Stewart; Ryan Gilbey on Bela Tarr’s valedictory film The Turin Horse and Plan B’s boisterous cinematic debut, iLL Manors; “Blue Song”, a poem by Dannie Abse; Antonia Quirke on a Radio 2 documentary about the Queen; and Will Self goes to Berlin to eat currywurst.

Ben Drew, aka Plan B (Photo: Getty Images)
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David Keenan's new novel is a dizzying recall of adolescence

This Is Memorial Device vividly recalls the teen years of the post-punk generation. I'm just not sure I wanted to remember.

Imagine dropping down the ­metaphysical wormhole to the scene of your adolescent self, with all your mates; with all that immortal music, sex, drugs, madness and tempestuousness. For some of us it’s a place we would rather not revisit. For the post-punk generation, David Keenan’s debut novel sends us plunging into that era anyway – violently, viscerally, surreally – in this “Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978-1986”. Keenan’s real-life west coast Scotland is the home of a fictional dissonant, radical group called Memorial Device, whose underground misadventures are transmitted through a constellation of eyewitness accounts and psychedelic reveries from the damaged, delirious misfits in and around a band that sounded, as the narrator Ross Raymond describes it, “like Airdrie, like a black fucking hole”.

Such were the post-punk provinces across the UK, vividly realised here, populated by John Peel apostles transcending dead-end reality in bedsits wallpapered with pages from the NME and Sounds, romantic young minds consumed by Johnny Thunders and Iggy Pop, Jack Kerouac and H P Lovecraft. These are murky everytowns where, as Ross writes, “music deformed my life rather than just changed it”.

Keenan – an author, journalist, jazz critic, obsessive scholar of psych-folk – has a febrile imagination and his fiction debut is a fantastical meander in intense, magical-realist prose. Much like in youth itself, you’ve no idea what’s happening, or where you’re going, each chapter a crunching gear change of new characters who fizz in, dazzle, disappear and reappear. The chapter headings are filled with unfathomable imagery:

 

22. Ships Rising Up and Passing Through the Water Full of Sunlight and Memory the Tricks That It Plays: Bruce Cook on Autonomic Dreaming with Lucas and Vanity and all the baggage that comes back to haunt you like ghostly ships at the bottom of the ocean in a graveyard beneath the sea breaking free and rising to the surface.

 

This is the breathless style that dominates the book. Full stops are sporadically abandoned for chaotic streams of consciousness (Paul Morley’s sentences are tweets in comparison), like being trapped inside the amphetamine-boggled brain of Spud in the celebrated job-interview scene from Trainspotting (a struggle at times, with none of the daft jokes). With each new voice comes more forensic musical analysis, lurid recollections – of a barbaric scalping, of wanking on acid, of porn, puke, piss – and densely packed rushes of salty information. Ross’s co-author Johnny McLaughlin recalls his sexual exploits as a 17-year-old: he was “a collector . . . a gourmet, a pussy-eater (a body-gorger) (a piss-drinker, a shit-lapper), a woman-lover, a tit-biter, an auto-asphyxiator (an ass-lover, a panty-smotherer), a heel-worshipper (a hose-hugger)”. There’s as much sex here, it turns out, as music.

There are inevitable echoes of those fellow countrymen of Keenan’s, the literary dark lords Irvine Welsh and John Niven, yet little hilarity. But, mercifully, there are also passages of surrealist beauty: through prison bars, a main character is hypnotised by the moon, bathed in its “strange silver glow that made it seem like it was on fire, like ice on fire”, feeling “like a crystal ­being cleansed”. The last chapter is stunning, a soaring, existentialist, cosmic crescendo.

Memorial Device’s lead singer, the charismatic, amnesia-blighted, journal-writing Lucas, has his writing described as “a walking frame or a wheelchair, a crutch, which when you think about it is what most writing is, something to support the figure of the writer, so that he doesn’t fall back in the primordial soup of everyone else, which is no one”. Ultimately, This Is Memorial Device uses post-punk merely as its skeleton frame. It is a meditation on memory and perspective, on the magical forces of language, on the absurdity of existence and the dreadful thoughts bubbling like toxic fluid below the fragile surface of every human brain. Despite its black-humour set pieces (and a comically colossal, micro-detailed appendix, the undertaking of a madman), it’s a serious, disturbing book, free-form literary jazz for agonised over-thinkers, perhaps like the minds of intense young men.

In these creatively risk-averse times, it’s heroically bizarre, if more admirable than lovable. By the end, you’re exhausted, and happy to file it away for ever, along with the young life you no longer wish to live.

Sylvia Patterson is the author of “I’m Not With the Band” (Sphere)

This Is Memorial Device by David Keenan is published by Faber & Faber (298pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times