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David Keenan on the Books that Influenced This is Memorial Device

Posted on 10th January 2018 by Martha Greengrass
Our Scottish Book of the Month for January, David Keenan’s debut novel This is Memorial Device is a wild and brilliantly-mounted flashback to the post-punk era of the late seventies. Here, in an exclusive article for Waterstones, Keenen explores a varied, colourful (and often surprising) list of books that have influenced his work.

Psychotic Reactions & Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs

This book changed my life. I felt like I had a personal relationship with the legendary rock critic Lester Bangs and would talk about him as if we were buddies or correspondents, even though he was dead six years when this, the first collection of his writings, came out. And for me this is still the definitive one, joining the dots between all of his weirdo counter-cultural passions (Lou Reed, free jazz, psychotronic movies, noise, The Stooges, Astral Weeks) in a way that helped me make sense of my own.

Very few rock writers make interesting use of autobiography (maybe cause most rock writers tend to lead really boring lives) but Bangs incorporating of himself into his pieces, his own screw-ups and triumphs, his own heartbreak and heroism, is what really takes Psychotic Reactions… to the next level. Plus, he was really into inventing his own non-existent LPs and bands, too. My favourite piece, probably, is “Peter Laughner”, an article he wrote for New York Rocker in 1977 mourning the too young self-destruction of the original guitarist for Rocket From The Tombs and Pere Ubu. “I will not forget”, he wrote, “that this kid killed himself for something torn t-shirts represented in the battle fires of his ripped emotions.” What a line; the perfect encapsulation of the kind of immolating serious-as-your-life energy I wanted to capture with This Is Memorial Device

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Until his death aged thirty-three in 1982, Lester Bangs wrote wired, rock 'n' roll pieces on Iggy Pop, The Clash, John Lennon, Kraftwerk, Lou Reed. To his journalism he brought the talent of a great a renegade Beat poet, and his essays, reviews and scattered notes convey the electric thrill of a music junky indulging the habit of a lifetime.
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Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec

Perec was a member of rigorous/playful literary experimentalists the Oulipo Group, the Workshop for Potential Literature, and this, his masterpiece novel (or novels, as he describes it) from 1978, was a huge influence on my own. Mapping the interconnecting lives of the denizens of a fictitious apartment block in Paris with an unfolding structure that follows the logic of chess moves, I began to wonder if it would be possible to instead map the interlocking relationships of a group of people in a small town in the west of Scotland using my own, personal schematic. No chess moves in mine, but I did make use of some Oulipo gambits to generate certain phrases and situations. They’re there if you wanna look for them. 

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In this ingenious book Perec creates an entire microcosm in a Paris apartment block. Chapter by chapter, the narrative moves around the building revealing a marvellously diverse cast of characters in a series of every more unlikely tales, which range from an avenging murderer to an eccentric English millionaire.
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Cities of the Red Night by William Burroughs

Early on I was always more a fan of the more ‘romantic’ beats, like Kerouac and Snyder, maybe, but Burroughs has become my favourite writer from that era. His concept of the word, or wording, as a virus, is terrifying when you let it sink in. However, it is his late ‘Red Night’ trilogy of novels that are my favourites. I didn’t read this, the first part of the trilogy, for years, because I had fallen in love with my own dream vision of what Bill was referring to in the title: I visioned the Cities of the Red Night as the internal organs. When plotting This Is Memorial Device I wanted the book to have some kind of real life, to truly become a Memorial Device, and one of my conceits was that I based it, structurally, on a map of the body, the book itself, with individual chapters as organs and with characters coming in and out and circling on blood streams in order to keep it alive. Just like the alphabet This Is Memorial Device has 26 chapters. The Jewish mystic and folkloric idea of the creation of the Golem relies for its life on the letters written on the back of its neck. 

I finally read Cities of the Red Night after I completed This Is Memorial Device. It felt, to me, like we had been working parallel psychic streams. 

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An opium addict is lost in the jungle; young men wage war against an empire of mutants; a handsome young pirate faces his execution; and the world's population is infected with a radioactive epidemic. These stories are woven together in a single tale of mayhem and chaos intending to satirise modern society in a poetic story of sex, drugs, disease and adventure.
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The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

As one of the characters in This Is Memorial Device puts it: “The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is my favourite book of all time but just so you know you have to read it in the Michael Karpelson translation never the one that Diana Burgin and Katherine O’Connor did where it was like they were making things up for a modern audience really it was sacrilege I couldn’t believe it so the message is: avoid. 

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The devil makes a personal appearance in Moscow accompanied by various demons, including a naked girl and a huge black cat. When he leaves, the asylums are full and the forces of law and order in disarray. Only the Master, a man devoted to truth, and Margarita, the woman he loves, can resist the devil's onslaught.
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Visions Of Cody by Jack Kerouac

I love Jack so much and love this book, the mostly perfectly autumnal of all his works. I'm especially fond of his use of transcriptions of real conversations between himself and Neal Cassady. 

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An experimental novel which remained unpublished for years, Visions of Cody is Kerouac's fascinating examination of his own New York life. Transcribing taped conversations between his group as they took drugs and drank, this book reveals a portrait of people caught up in destructive relationships with substances, and one another.
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Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Best Dostoevsky is The Idiot or this, for me, but probably this. I have been in love with his concept of the ‘underground man’ ever since I encountered it plus it has one of the greatest, boldest opening sentences to a novel. 

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Alienated from society and paralysed by a sense of the Dostoyevsky's own insignificance, this book tells the story of his tortured life. It describes his refusal to become a worker in the 'anthill' of society and his gradual withdrawal to an existence 'underground'.
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Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

I mentioned Olson’s concept of scale being the central fact for moderns. But more, even, than The Maximus Poems, it is Arthur C. Clarke’s haunting vision of the size and mysterious workings of a giant spaceship that passes, briefly, through our solar system, that may be the greatest visioning of modern concepts of scale this side of Moby Dick

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The multi-award-winning masterpiece from one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time. Rama is a vast alien spacecraft that enters the Solar System. A perfect cylinder some fifty kilometres long, spinning rapidly, racing through space, Rama is a technological marvel, a mysterious and deeply enigmatic alien artefact. It must be investigated ...
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Arthur Rimbaud: Complete Works

One of the characters in This Is Memorial Device disappears to Palestine in order to ‘do a Rimbaud’. Art should cure you of art, and turn you back to life. The hope is to come through the other side of writing and to be able, like Rimbaud, one day, to walk away. 

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One of the world's most influential poets, Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) is remembered as much for his volatile personality and tumultuous life as he is for his writings, almost all of which he produced before the age of twenty.
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The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume 1

I love Plath’s poetry, The Bell Jar blew me away as a teen, but it is her correspondence that I turn to again and again. It is electric, violently sexual, impossibly romantic, bereft, tormented and so completely, painfully alive. So much poetry in here. So many diamond-sharp sentences, in exile. At one point a character in This Is Memorial Device watches as a hip young couple pass by on the street. “I remember thinking that’s a real romance,” he says, “that’s lying back in the grass and talking about Sylvia Plath right there.” 

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Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was one of the writers that defined the course of twentieth-century poetry. Her vivid, daring and complex poetry continues to captivate new generations of readers and writers. In these letters, we discover the art of Plath through her own words.
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Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain

I love oral rock n roll histories and Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s telling of punk through the conflicting and contradictory voices of everyone who was there was a major influence on the form, and the telling, of This Is Memorial Device

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This is the story of a cultural phenomenon which embraced Andy Warhol, Jim Morrison, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Patti Smith, The Sex Pistols, Iggy Pop, and more. Documenting a time of self-destruction and peverse innocence, this text has contributions from both stars and groupies.
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Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

Simply put: my favourite novel of all time. 

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It is the fiesta 'Day of the Dead' in the small Mexican town of Quauhnahuac. In the shadow of the volcano, ragged children beg coins to buy skulls made of chocolate, ugly pariah dogs roam the streets and Geoffrey Firmin - ex-consul, ex-husband, an alcoholic and a ruined man - is living out the last day of his life.
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