Review: Monument Maker by David Keenan

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David Keenan is one of today’s most exciting, fearless, and entertaining writers. Monument Maker is his most daring book to date.

Is it possible for books to dream? For books to dream within books? Is there a literary subterranea that would facilitate ingress and exit points through these dreams? 

These are some of the questions posed by David Keenan’s Monument Maker, an epic romance set in an eternal summer, and a descent into history and the errors of the past; a novel with a sweep and range that runs from the siege of Khartoum and the conquest of Africa in the 19th century through the Second World War and up to the present day, where the memories of one summer and an unforgettable love affair unravel. 

A book within a book within a book, a meditation on art and religion, and on what it means to make monuments. A hallucinatory epic and a forward-looking history of the world, Monument Maker was written over the course of ten years and represents the apex of Keenan’s project to create books that are themselves teeming with organic life. 

“I sometimes think David Keenan dreams aloud. His prose has the effortless enigmatic, unsettling quality of dream.”—Edna O’Brien


I received Monument Maker as an ARC from Europa Editions in exchange for an honest review.

When I reviewed David Keenan’s last Europa Edition release, Xstabeth, I thought it was an interesting way to tell a story. The author is a dead person who is writing about a girl who might be dead or alive and this confusion is compelling, complete with asides about science and language that only make sense metaphorically. After spending many hours reading Monument Maker, David Keenan has swept me into an even bigger story, one that not only shares the same universe as Xstabeth, but one that is much bigger than even the story on the pages told here. A story that is as endless and timeless as art, science, and the galaxy.

The basics of the story is the telling of Pierre Melville’s life, an artist who lives with Maximilian Rehberg and writes science fiction novels under the pen name Paimon. But this is not right. The real basics of the story is a third of their party, Frater Jim, who is a time traveler and tells the story in a World War II camp about how he got a face transplant, in the future, from Nazis wearing monkey suits, but returned back to the camp to tell how he got this procedure done. Frater Jim is a Janusist, one who lives forward and backward at the same time. But this is not right either. The real basics of the story is the exploration of art and the way that it changes and moves throughout the years and how all art is like religion, where every piece of art, every stone, every writing, painting, song should be studied and worshiped and those who make it should be seen as gods. Every piece of art needs a monument made for it, and David Keenan is the monument maker.  

Monument Maker is a mosaic with hundreds of little pieces that can be put together in any order because the picture will be up for the reader’s interpretation anyway. One of the smallest of passages close to the end of the novel brings this to light:

Suddenly I was struck by a terrifying thought. Was it possible for books to dream? Could it be that every time a book was closed it fell into a deep slumber wherein it dreamed itself as something else? I considered myself an erudite man, well read, able to discourse at length on the classics. Could it be that I was simply a victim of fancy and fate? That all I had remembered and studied and was able to quote at length, all that I had in fact lived by, was nothing but the night-time reveries of books dreaming themselves? In that case the history of literature was nothing but a phantom; no one had ever read the same book.” (pgs. 619-620)

This feels like an thesis of the entire novel. Books are a fluid thing and even when we close the pages, when we open them again, the novel has dreamed and has changed. It is not the novel itself, the words have turned into something else, but us, as the readers have changed, even if is just slightly. Within a few minutes of taking a break, we are not the same person that closed the book earlier. We might have forgotten a small detail. We might have made up the true synopsis of what we think Monument Maker may be about but changed it while taking a shower or cutting the grass, only to return to reading with filtering the story now through a different lens. Books are constantly changing because the reader is constantly changing. We change our feelings and interpretation all of the time, and the idea that “no one has ever read the same book” is one hundred percent accurate. 

There are so many things I have been thinking about since finishing Monument Maker, and one of them is how important art and artists are to David Keenan and his writings. In both of the novels I have read by him, he has focused on an obscure artist and the people who surround these artists and worship them, turning their following into a small cult. This group, sometimes 20 or 30 people worldwide, are devoted to these artists, even when these said artists really have not released a massive amount of work, sometimes just one obscure book. In Keenans’ world, if someone writes a slim novella or someone paints a few canvases, there is a potential that a group of people will follow this artist, try to learn everything about them, and will obsess over every move that the artist makes. This devotion to the artist, regardless of obscurity, seems to be one of those things that Keenan likes to fantasize about, like how every single little piece of art has the potential to make someone a devout to the artist and his life. This exhibits a sincerity to the value of art in David Keenan’s life, otherwise this phenomenon would not continue to be a major plot in his novels. 

As a whole, Monument Maker is a huge and difficult book. I say this in the most loving way possible. I enjoy it because I enjoy the way David Keenan writes, but it is not for everyone. His novel is nonlinear, metaphorical, and really has made me think a great deal about the meaning behind his choices. Some of the sentences are pages long, some of the little details turn into pages of falling down a rabbit hole of information (like the idea that Goya should paint what might possibly be on the flag that is planted on the moon if we were to land in a joint world effort and why). There is not really an imbalance in this book because there is never really much balance. Book Four is far removed from Book One, and the appendixes are just as important to the novel as the four parts, including the science fiction story by Paimon. In the end, it is one of those books that I enjoyed the journey and the difficulty, like I really feel like I accomplished something serious by finishing it and mulling over the multiple meanings. If you are hesitant to read Monument Maker check out Xstabeth first, to get a taste for the way that David Keenan constructs his universe. But who knows, maybe you should just start with Monument Maker. Maybe the book that you read will be completely different than the one that I read. That is how books dream, right? 

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