on Counternarratives by John Keene

In 1995, thirty-year-old John Keene published his first book, the autobiographical novel Annotations. With its sentence fragments and snaking syntax, the book reads like a bildungsroman carved into pieces. The protagonist, an African American youth growing up in St. Louis during the Seventies and Eighties, is part of a “generation that lacks more than a cursory sense of the world our ancestors faced, which surprises no one cognizant of the contempt in which the nuances of history are held.” How, Keene wanted to know, can a young black man achieve agency in a society that denies him a nuanced history? The answer is through literature: “encased in each attempt to make himself heard lies the aim to site his personal development within the broader historical record.” The book as a whole intentionally shies away from that historical record, preferring to examine it from a refracted distance, so that readers feel the pressure of history without ever actually confronting it. 

Keene’s new collection of stories, Counternarratives—his first work of fiction since Annotations—marks a change for the author, engaging history with precisely the directness Annotations avoided. The stories span five hundred years, moving chronologically from early Manhattan’s “spray of greenery” to a dialogue between demagogues of a modern-day African nation. Keene moves beyond the experimental syntax of Annotations (a prose style characterized by pauses and swerves) to formal experimentation dominated by collage, interruption, and appropriated narrative styles. Many of the stories include newspaper clippings, maps, song lyrics, and authorial intrusions as a means to, as Keene told the Offing magazine, “queer traditional narrative.” Queering, in this sense, means reappropriating master narrative styles—monographs, travelogues, letters—in order to emphasize peoples and practices those narratives have historically suppressed. One might call Counternarratives a work of revisionist history, but the term, with its air of political fiction, feels reductive in this case. Keene’s writing fits alongside the work of authors like E. L. Doctorow and Toni Morrison. Like them, he does not so much revise history as transform it into literature. 

The book is split into three sections. Its first, “Counternarratives,” looks at how the exploitation of people of color gave rise to modernity. The book opens with “Mannahatta,” which follows the mixed-race sailor Jan Rodriguez, the first non-native settler in Manhattan. This piece, written from a conventional, third-person point of view, functions as an introduction to the book’s major concerns. When Rodriguez vows to “never return to [his ship] the Jonge Tobias, or any other ship, nor to the narrow alleys of Amsterdam or his native Hispaniola,” he effectively ignites the exploration of colonialism for the rest of the book.

The following story, “On Brazil, Or Dénouement: The Londônias-Figueiras,” signals a shift in Keene’s narrative intentions. It begins in present-day Brazil with a newspaper clipping about a young heir found beheaded in a favela. Then it leaps back four hundred years to chronicle the exploits of his powerful family, the Londônias-Figueiras, Portuguese plantation owners and soldiers. Keene tells the story using an omniscient point of view as cold and aloof as the violent men of the clan itself: “José Inocêncio was entering the sugar trade as ships were disgorging wave upon wave of Africans onto the colony’s shores, and he viewed this as a rising historical and economic trend, the product of the natural order.” 

These men are privileged and malicious—one member is considered “innovative” for his cruel treatment of slaves—but they are also, Keene makes sure readers know, exquisite storytellers. Colonel Londônia, on trial for violating military code, regales the courtroom with tales of his campaigns and receives a laughably minor sentence. Keene puts forth a troubling, juridical truth: justice is often reserved for the eloquent. But he doesn’t go long without complicating this idea. The day the Colonel is released from jail he dies in a street fight. 

In “An Outtake from the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution,” Keene retains the formal innovations of “On Brazil” while focusing on a single character, Zion, an irreverent slave gifted with a golden voice and a talent for escaping plantations. The story takes place in the lead-up to the American Revolution, when “the promise of freedom sweetened the air like incense.” The scent intoxicates Zion, and as we read we grow accustomed to celebrating his resourceful escapes: “Zion charmed a Dutch whore strolling by to untie his bindings, whereupon he set off to find the first loosely hitched horse. As he ran he proclaimed himself free.” 

What he does with that freedom is far less charming. After Zion takes “violent liberties” with a sleeping widow, we are told that he “did not flee the town, but entered a nearby tavern and began a round of popular songs.” His resistance is an expression of the world around him, but so too is his depravity, which mirrors that of the men who lash him and the police who frequently overlook his violence. Keene highlights the hypocrisy of the soon-to-be Americans near the end of the text, when he includes an image of the Declaration of Independence on the same page where Zion, set to be hanged the following day, gives a speech on the importance of freedom. That night, Zion escapes from prison. The authorities, aware of “the severity of the crimes and the necessity of preserving the ruling order, [hang] another Negro, whose particular crimes are not recorded.” Any black body will do: justice has been reduced to a spectacle meant to appease an undiscerning crowd. 

As the collection progresses, these modes of control—such as the ruling order—become increasingly vulnerable. Keene expresses this breakdown by appropriating and weakening master narrative forms: letters are written by slaves thought to be illiterate, historical monographs are cut off mid-sentence. Perhaps the finest example in the book comes in “Gloss on a History of Roman Catholics in the Early American Republic, 1790–1825; Or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows.” The story begins as a monograph about a convent in Kentucky, but after two pages a footnote interrupts, and what follows is the story of Carmel, a mute house slave living in Haiti during the years of revolution. Carmel is also an artist, drawing in a trance and creating large chaotic depictions of the plantation under siege that, according to a visiting priest, prove “their creator possessed an inestimable capacity for evil.” The closest thing to genuine evil in the story, however, is Eugénie, the psychopathic daughter of the plantation’s owner. She is also Carmel’s mistress, and spends her days playing pranks—such as tripping Carmel as she carries a chamber pot—and bossing her around at knifepoint. After Eugénie’s parents are killed in a slave revolt, she and Carmel are sent to the aforementioned convent in Kentucky. 

Keene repeatedly interrupts “Gloss” with brief passages titled “The Role of Duty.” One reads, “Within the context shaped by a musket barrel, is there any ethical responsibility besides silence, resistance, and cunning?” These passages halt the progression of the plot and force us to reflect on Carmel’s obligation to her mistress. Is there any way, Keene asks, for Carmel to resist? At the convent she discovers one possibility: education. The story’s omniscience gives way to Carmel’s journal, in which she tracks her French, Latin, and biblical studies using Pidgin English. Gaining agency through language, she becomes by the final scenes an eloquent and lucid thinker who enacts a severe, supernatural punishment on Eugénie. 

In “Gloss” Keene charts a trajectory for black agency—from the academic monograph (a master narrative unlikely to feature Carmel) to the omniscient point of view (which tells us about Carmel) to the story she tells for herself. The story concludes the book’s first section, “Counternarratives,” and serves as a conduit into the second, “Encounternarratives,” where the majority of the stories are delivered in first person by a historical individual of color who has been silenced or pigeonholed by a white artist. In “Rivers,” Jim from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn offers an account of his life after his trip down the Mississippi. Other stories give voice to vaudeville composer Bob Cole, the Mexican poet Xavier Villaurrutia, W. E. B. Dubois, and the nineteenth-century acrobat Miss La La, a trapeze artist known for being lifted into the air by her teeth. 

Miss La La narrates “Acrobatique” in one long, mesmerizing sentence. She tells of her encounter with the painter Edgar Degas, who captured her in his “Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando.” The story centers on the clash of their opposing talents: any painting Degas makes of her would render her motionless, stifling her own art form as it prioritizes his, and as a result the idea that art immortalizes its subject is undermined. Degas’s painting stiffened Miss La La; hanging her limp as a fish from the top of a tent. Literature, Keene suggests, is what truly immortalizes her by letting her speak: “I aim to exceed every limit placed upon me unless I place it there,” she states midway through the story, “because that is what I think of when I think of freedom.” 

The book’s final section, “Counternarrative,” consists of a single story, “The Lions,” an extended dialogue between the militant dictator of an unnamed African nation and his prisoner, a blinded amputee known as “Prophet.” Their conversation takes place in a prison cell, where the dictator prepares to put “Prophet” to death. At times the story reads like a primer on demagoguery: “I give [the population] a steady diet of garbage, music videos from Rio, US reality shows, K-Pop . . . Even a trickle of attenuated religion now and then, nothing to give them hope or ideas.” Yet, for all of the dictator’s contempt for western culture, he has internalized its greed and violence: 

If I wanted your wife, your mother, your father, your children, your grandchildren . . . if I wanted your entire native ancestral village to lie prone before me as I entered them one by one . . . I would have done so. I can write the story of reality however I see fit. At any time.

This dialogue recalls the brutality of the Londônias-Figueiras family—not to mention the slave owners stripping Zion, and Eugénie terrorizing Carmel. Keene’s world has come full circle. The evils of colonialism are reborn in the African dictator. Only the actors have changed. 

For such an ambitious book, Counternarratives has few glaring flaws. However, the second and third sections are notably lacking compared to the first, where Keene’s imagination feels fully realized. Shorter pieces, like “Persons and Places” and “Anthropophagy,” seem incomplete and out of place beside the sprawling worlds of “A Gloss” and “An Outtake.” Perhaps this is a result of the author’s changing aesthetics. Keene took over a decade to complete the book, and the collection’s inconsistencies appear to reflect that stretch of time.

On the whole, though, Counternarratives is a fine work of literary fiction strengthened by its political and ethical ideas. Vladimir Nabokov once stated that “Mediocrity thrives on ideas,” but ideas, John Keene shows us, prove mediocre only in the hands of a mediocre writer. He has a gift for distilling abstractions into complicated, fully fleshed characters. His long, twisting sentences cross pages with an admirable control, and his images stick in the mind: Tom Sawyer is said to have a face “like broken porcelain;” the Paris sky is compared to a winter crocus. But it is Keene’s ethical aspirations that propel the book. His stories don’t just revise history, they—to quote Keene—“queer” it by giving voice and agency to people who have been systematically whitewashed. As America sluggishly shakes off its colonial roots, Counternarratives provides an artistically rewarding resistance to narratives that continue to simplify the nuances of history.

 

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New York: New Directions, 2015. 320 pp. $24.95.

 

Alex McElroy’s writing appears or is forthcoming in New England Review, Copper Nickel, Kenyon Review Online, Black Warrior Review, and Catapult. He splits his time between New Hampshire and Texas.