Reviews / April 17, 2017
“Worldbuilding” has become a trendy word to throw around when it comes to fictional universes. Franchises with the luxury to build their worlds over multiple motion pictures costing billions and billions of dollars fill the media landscape. In David Keenan’s debut novel, This Is Memorial Device, we enter a world with a much more humble, much more homely set of concerns, but with a universe no less studded with outsized personalities. Keenan has constructed a deep, abiding account of a fictional music scene in late 1970s and early 1980s suburban Glasgow, populated by the young people who were both part of the music and on its periphery. Keenan, who grew up in Airdrie, where most of the novel takes place, is himself a musician, poet, and music critic who has curated several music festivals and written histories of, among other things, the neofolk scene in Britain and its intersections with the British occult underground.
Constructed in the format of an oral history, This Is Memorial Device consists of 26 interviews/monologues and four appendices (which include a list of the scene’s bands, a fictional discography for fictional band Memorial Device, a dramatis personae, and, yes, an index for a novel). The interviews that make up the oral history are a fractured, kaleidoscope’s-eye series of perspectives and accounts of this fictional music scene. The oral history approach is, of course, postmodern. But today, in the real world, it’s also a reliable standby of mainstream media journalism. The format was a technique originally pioneered in the social sciences to accommodate the many voices that might offer different perspectives on diverse social issues. These days, it’s become a very popular method to report on creative endeavors. An author interviews all the individuals involved in the making of a film, or album, or television series, and these perspectives populate the review with all of the detailed elements of a particular time and place. The oral history allows readers to connect the dots, construct meaning, and make their own conclusions, ideally without privileging one perspective above others.
The story of the band Memorial Device echoes other famous tales etched in post-punk history; in the person of mystically visionary Memorial Device lead singer, Lucas Black, Keenan recalls Joy Division’s Ian Curtis or The Fall’s Mark E. Smith. In setting the novel in his fictional Airdrie and environs, Keenan again evokes the post-punk scenes in British towns and cities outside London: Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, and indeed the real-life Glasgow post-punk scene immortalized on Postcard Records, which produced bands like Orange Juice and Josef K. Fictional bands float in and out of the scene in Airdrie and environs: synth-pop duos reminiscent of Human League, harder-edged bands that recall the late days of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and bands even more ethereal and artsy than Memorial Device themselves (whose 12″ single “Adherence” consisted of “a single track over two sides of vinyl that combines the celestial sound of interstellar shortwave with a two-chord jam that is so echo-damaged and distraught that it comes over like The Velvet Underground live from Atlantis or the Sun Ra Arkestra caught in the orbit of the planet Jupiter…”). It’s evident that Keenan’s years as a music critic allow him to write evocatively about music, even music that never existed, clearly and vividly.
Instead of trying to approach This Is Memorial Device‘s structure in any kind of traditional narrative sense, in this review I’ll replicate the oral history’s fractured set of perspectives, looking at the threads and themes that hold together both the novel’s North Lanarkshire music scene and its enormous cast of characters.
Music (and other culture)
Unifying all of the Airdrie scene’s disparate bands, dreamers, and idle youth is a common bond of culture. Whether high or low, these children of suburban Scotland seem to follow solid signposts that allow them to communicate with each other, to make their own art, and to express themselves at a social and emotional level one might not expect from teens or twentysomethings. As Mark Fisher said about the post-punk scene and the youth of that era, “You could find working class kids who wrote songs steeped in Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Kafka, Burroughs, Ballard, kids who without even thinking about it, were rigorous modernists.” The bands and fans in This Is Memorial Device fit this description to a T. Art school students ruminate about “Artaud and Breton and Éluard” or decide to “assign ourselves novels, say all Russian novels, Gogol and Turgenev and Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and Bulgakov,” while high schoolers graduate from “comics; science fiction; war gaming; role playing; stuff like that” into being serious music heads. High and low culture meet and mix and merge in the imaginations of the young, fired up on the new discoveries in literature and film and music that they make each day.
But it is music that undeniably forms the common lexicon that all of these young people share. There are copious references to both real-life artists like Iggy Pop and Pere Ubu and the fictional bands of the Airdrie scene. Zines are written, compilation cassettes made, lists of records lost in the aftermath of failed relationships tallied, obscure vinyl tracked down to hermit-like collectors squatting in disused nuclear bunkers. The urge to pursue new music and the conversations we have about it are arguably never quite as compulsive and powerful as when we’re young, and This Is Memorial Device portrays that feeling flawlessly.
Underlaid beneath this rich tapestry of a shared culture are repeated references to magic and the occult. From formalized magical theorists like Aleister Crowley to folk legends and ghost stories, among the youth of Airdrie a hidden layer to life is occasionally dimly visible. The local park is supposedly full of ghosts and conceals covens of witches. Just as some of the local youth dabble in obscure artists, authors, and musicians, some look to actively practice forms of magic to reinforce their identities. Mysterious figures, doubles, and doppelgängers abound. Conceptual Airdrie band Chinese Moon use garishly decorated mannequins to stand in for them on stage, and it’s the mannequins that end up becoming the stars that fans want a piece of. Eventually, one of the dummies is somehow implicated in a murder, raising the specter that the band has somehow summoned a changeling double of its own. The British Situationist practice of psychogeography is invoked. Local artists’ installations bleed into occult practice; one such space is titled the “Gartlea Gallery of Geomancy and Geographic Speculation” by the collective living there.
Above all this floats Memorial Device’s lead singer Lucas Black, an “autonomic dreamer” who enters fugue states, carries around knitted magic squares in his pockets to give to people, and whose scars and enormous hands and feet give him an otherworldly aura that bestows upon him the nickname “the Man from Atlantis.” Other observers of the scene swear that Lucas had a twin brother or a doppelgänger who would perform in his stead at certain shows. In Lucas’s mother’s interview, she reveals Lucas was adopted, changeling-style: “An angel touched him on the head when he was born, that’s what his dad used to say, and of course it was true in more ways than any of us ever knew.” (Lucas suffered from hydrocephaly as a child.) And where faerie magic exists, the line between sanity and bedlam cannot be too far behind.
Madness (and mutilation)
Pivoting off of magic and mysticality, there’s also a strain of madness and mental illness in these kids. Lucas’s repeated brain surgeries leave him with scars and a problem processing memory that some of his fans and friends believe were the reason for his astounding lyrical talent and hypnotizing stage presence. His perceived mental lapses and mysterious death just as Memorial Device are starting to hit it big reinforce his legend. His final “field recording” of the dawn chorus is released as a posthumous record.
This conceptual union of mutilation and madness sometimes reaches disturbing, even violent proportions. We take side treks into the lives of an ersatz porn star and performance artist’s breast implant disaster, and into the life story of Clyde Farr, the father of Memorial Device’s bassist Remy Farr, a disgraced academic (and perhaps occultist?) who “Tried To Have His Testicles Removed on the NHS,” in one of the novel’s most memorable chapter titles. This disjointedness of body and mind and subsequent potential for violence occurs again and again among the people of Airdrie. Even fairly innocuous local eccentrics like high school teacher Mr. Scotia, who aids a local Mod revival band in rescuing their girl from a motorcycle gang of Rockers, seems prone to violence as he carries his heavy walking cane to the confrontation, with “an iron tip that would send off sparks every time he declaimed and struck it against the ground. It was like some ancient god of thunder had our back.” In the end, Mr. Scotia stands up to the Rockers by recognizing their leader, Teddy Ohm (the aforementioned record-collecting eccentric who lives in a nuclear bunker with his LPs and antique weapon collection; by the end of the novel all of the relationships between Airdrie’s eccentrics begin to coalesce), as a student of his years earlier. And that power of memory leads us to the last major theme of This Is Memorial Device.
The band calls itself “Memorial Device,” after all, partly in honor of Lucas’s swiss-cheesed memory. But in a wider sense this idea of a manufactured memory aid, a machine that keeps life stories alive, is inherent in the novel itself, in both structure and affectation. The inclusion of an idiosyncratic index and fictional discographies add to this sense of a need to permanently preserve an ephemeral time and place. There’s also a sense of legacy here: that the long, invisible, and under-reported history of Airdrie itself was leading up to this brief, special time and place. Airdrie’s previous (fictional) contribution to the world of rock and roll was a late-’50s musician called “Sinew Singer,” whose name was inspired by an observation over a picture of Elvis (“it’s the new singer“). Sinew Singer looms large in the memory of the older generation in Airdrie, and his eccentric career serves as a kind of forerunner or prophecy to Lucas Black and Memorial Device a generation later. In an interview with Dominic Hunter, the former bandmate (and boyfriend) of Memorial Device’s bassist Remy, he intriguingly quotes some Sinew Singer lyrics:
Why is the future so quick to snatch it all away? That last line’s a quote by the way. From Sinew Singer, do you know him? He’s a great hero of mine. I will send you his record if you don’t know him. He really should be in your book. It’s a song he had ‘Why Does the Future?’ where he sings all of these questions. Not really to the future, but about the future. As if he is the future. But like he’s still a mystery to himself.
Twenty-five years later, one of Lucas’s sui generis performances features “this song where Lucas enumerated… all the subjects of songs, I can’t remember exactly how many there were…”—followed by a page-long list of topics that songs could be about, reminiscent of Polonius’s list of types of drama from Hamlet. Here again we see the obsessions of both Keenan and his fictional artists: lists, memorials, devices to help capture and magnify the past, the sense of being dislocated in one’s own time and place, that act of finding salvation in music as music. Miriam McLuskie, Memorial Device’s “unofficial tour manager/publicist,” details how profoundly she reacted to this seemingly prosaic listing of songs, and Lucas’s subsequent breaking down into tears and “spouting nonsense”:
He’s writing a song about nothing. It’s the only thing that songs haven’t been written about. D’you get me? And it was like a love song, it was like he was singing a song to something that was so lacking in love that even the mention of its name would bring it back to life and we would all notice it and fall in love with it like a prom queen or a movie star. Oh god every bit of nonsense was like a poem to nothing from the depths of his heart to the depths of his heart.
Is it any wonder that the mad and lonely and hurt look for meaning in music and in magic, both in Airdrie and everywhere else?