What makes a cult novel is hard to define, but here goes. It will alienate as many people as it attracts. It will pitch itself against the status quo, answering the question “What are you against?” with “What have you got?”. It will display attitude, angst, anger and alienation. Such novels are often culturally aware and precisely of their time, yet the best ones are timeless. They are also unapologetic in their attitude of not giving a fuck. You either get it or you don’t. If you don’t, move on – nothing for you here.
Great Scottish cult novels include Alexander Trocchi’s Young Adam, Toni Davidson’s Scar Culture, Martin Millar’s Lux The Poet, and Duncan McLean’s Bunker Man. And then there’s Trainspotting, which is a reminder that cult does not necessarily mean unknown. Way before the film it was a book which was handed around school playgrounds, and shoplifted from John Menzies. Cult novels should be infamous, not necessarily unfamous or obscure. A Clockwork Orange, Naked Lunch and American Psycho can all be called cult, but are also best-sellers. Jack Kerouac’s On The Road is his great cult novel, rather than the lesser known Doctor Sax. This is because the former chimed with and helped define the Beat Generation, and the latter shows that hanging out at William Burroughs’ house can seriously damage your muse.
If, as some people claim, “You just know a cult novel when you see it”, then David Keenan’s This is Memorial Device literally wears its credentials on its sleeve with a reference on the cover to Iggy Pop, and quotes from Andrew O’Hagan, John Niven, Alan Warner and avant-garde artist and Throbbing Gristle member Cosey Fanni Tutti. It just so happens I’ve started reading Cosey Fanni Tutti’s autobiography Art Sex Music and there is little doubt that if Throbbing Gristle had come from David Keenan’s Airdrie not Hull they would have fitted right in, possibly supported by local heroes Memorial Device. At least that’s what it would have said on the posters.
Keenan’s Airdrie is one of post-punk freaks and geeks and is all the better for it. For those with only a passing knowledge of the area you may be surprised by the music, inspiration and creation which he relates. But what is described was happening all around the country, and often in towns rather than cities. Set in the early ’80s, this was the time of new towns and old industry, the two clashing in many ways, but both producing a generation with an indeterminate future. Music and art didn’t offer a way out, it offered a way to belong, to define yourself.
This is a novel about youth. Real youth, not the sort of arrested development that is all too common these days. Look at the cover shot of the novel at the top of the page. I would guess that those boys are anything between 14 and 17 years old. If John Hughes had set a film in Airdrie Academy, that’s what the cast would have looked like. So many of us spend such a long time trying to “grow up” we forget what it’s like to be young. This Is Memorial Device is well named as it takes you back to a time when everything was felt more keenly, without a weary, ironic, knowing filter dulling the effect. It felt like the first time because it was.
It’s become a cliché to talk about Postcard Records being the ‘Sound Of Young Scotland’ in the early ’80s, but there’s a truth to that. When Edwyn Collins formed the Nu-Sonics he was 16. Aztec Camera’s Roddy Frame was the same age when Postcard released his debut single ‘Mattress Of Wire’. Josef K’s Paul Haig was a positively geriatric 19 when their first single was released. Meanwhile, in East Kilbride, The Jesus and Mary Chain were going through 16-year-old drummers like a post-punk Spinal Tap. This Is Memorial Device is spot on in terms of time and place, but it’s so much more than that. It’s rare for a writer to capture both in a manner which avoids nostalgia and feels relevant, but Keenan manages to do so. It’s a novel which is about what it means to be young, about the hows and whys – the when and where is less relevant.
I haven’t even mentioned the writing itself. If I read a better novel this year I will consider myself lucky. There are so many characters who will stay with me. Sexy, dirty and damaged creations who would not be out-of-place in ’80s New York, or even Bellshill, never mind Airdrie. Also, the detail and dedication on show tells of a writer obsessed and obsessive. Among the appendix (this is a novel, remember) there’s a ‘Memorial Device Discography,’ a ‘Necessarily Incomplete Attempt to Map the Extent of the Post-Punk Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and environs 1978 – 1986’, as well as an astonishingly thorough index, called ‘A Navigational Aid’ of the like I’ve never seen, and I’ve been involved in a few. The level of attention to detail and the sheer-bloody mindedness to follow this through reminds me of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, and in the same way it reflects the writer rather than any desire to inform the reader. If only more writers would put themselves first.
If Trainspotting deserved to sell more copies than the Bible, (as was the infamous claim on the original cover), then This Is Memorial Device deserves to sell more copies than Trainspotting. Some people may take that as a dig at Welsh, but if you do you are looking at things from the wrong point of view. It’s a reflection of how highly I rate this novel. I’ve read it twice and will do so again before too long. At the age of 46 it’s had a palpable effect on me. If I had read it when I was 15, (as happened with The Busconductor Hines and The Wasp Factory), there’s every chance it would have changed my life. That’s your definition of a cult novel right there.