Review: Xstabeth by David Keenan

Xstabeth

Buy it here: Amazon, Bookshop

Synopsis:

A transcendent love letter to literature and music, Xstabeth is an exciting new work from a writer who, book-by-book, is rewriting the rules of contemporary fiction.

Aneliya’s father dreams of becoming a great musician but his naivete and his unfashionable music suggest he will never be taken seriously. Her father’s best friend, on the other hand, has a penchant for vodka, strip clubs, and moral philosophy. Aneliya is torn between love of the former and passion for the latter.

When an angelic presence named Xstabeth enters their lives Aneliya and her father’s world is transformed.

A short, stylish novel with a big heart, humor, Xstabeth moves from Russia to Scotland, touching upon the pathos of Russian literature and the Russian soul, the power of art and music to shape reality, and the metaphysics of golf while telling a moving father-daughter story in highly-charged, torrential prose.

Review:

Xstabeth has something of a life of it’s own. At it’s simplest, the novella is about a girl, Aneliya, her love for her father, a failed musician, and her affair with her father’s friend, who is a successful musician. This is the story that is told, yet it is nowhere near the story that it told. David Keenan has written something that is strangely confusing but beautifully compelling. If you are to strip down all of the elements Xstabeth is a pretty simple story, but the elements are what make this novella.

Half of the time, the reader does not know what is happening, if the characters are dead or alive, if the events are really happening, and there is a question on whether David Keenan is alive at all. The beginning of the novella is a short biography saying that the author David Keenan had self-published one novel in his lifetime, and this would be Xstabeth. Toward the end there is a report of how David Keenan died. There are also papers written about the fictional Keenan and this novel by members of St. Rule’s School for Immaculate Fools, a school where he taught a correspondence course in avant-garde literature. Most of these papers are more about science (mRNA, rainbows) and language than about the story, yet there are things that tie into the story throughout.  

You also do not really know if the main character, Aneliya, is alive or a ghost throughout most of the novella. She says she is dead, but she says a lot of things.

What also makes this even more compelling, besides the purposeful confusion and lack of cohesion, is the writing. The author writes his story and it reads like a song. There is a rhythm to every sentence, a structure to every paragraph, and reading this for pages at a time gets you thinking about this as more of a song than a story. It helps that there are many parts that talk about music, from Leonard Cohen to Nick Drake, but in the end, most of this feels like music, like you could sing the chapters of this to your family at a gathering if you wanted to. Even the section about Aneliya’s mother dying has the chord progressions that go along with the story. I do not know enough about making music to actually try this, but I’m interested in hearing what it would sound like as a song.

In the end, this is not a book that I would read for the sake of reading a good novel. This is a book that is more of an experiment, a way of looking at something and reading something that makes you think about the way you perceive and enjoy art. It is a simple and beautiful book to read, but it is not a simple book to understand. You will not read another book like it.

I received and ARC through NetGalley and Europa Editions in exchange for an honest review.

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