Counternarratives by John Keene. New Directions. 320pp, $24.95.
The trajectory of history, we’re told, is that of a projectile hurtling through space. It is meant only to keep moving—ideally forward—and the guardians of history have been able to idealize their accumulations of time into an abstraction—namely, progress—by way of a deadeye aim backing up their threat: “Your money and your life.” In this way, histories, in all their extravagances and contradictions, become History.
With black and brown bodies being murdered daily from Cleveland to Cincinnati, Baltimore to Oakland—the riotous specter of Ferguson looming always—by an assortment of systemic forces shrugging off protest when they are not stamping it out, the stories of these lives, or ones like them, are the stuff of histories untold by History. This is, of course, nothing new to 2015, no matter the number and volume of white people (like myself) now paying attention. History is nothing if not resourceful.
This is the context of John Keene’s ambitious collection of stories and novellas, Counternarratives. Though many of these were published elsewhere, together they read very much like the multi-genre, patchwork novels of Alexander Kluge—or perhaps more grandly still, László Krasznahorkai’s recent Seiobo There Below, a work bound not by plotted coherence but by a conceptual aesthetic thriving on difference. This is to say, while Counternarratives makes no claim to being a “novel of short stories,” its epic sweep and conceptual unity bear the marks. Indeed, one might speculate further that this “story collection” lives up to its title and effectively challenges—like Kluge and Krasznahorkai (among others)—the commonplace sense of how a novel should look and what it should do.
I don’t want to make too much of this theory, however; I fear I would just be trading in more abstraction, in the process smiling too brightly on the assembling of yet another bullseye for Progress. That Keene arranges his stories chronologically, from colonial discovery to forms of conquest to fallouts of rule, makes all the more striking his defiance of History’s narrative mastery, particularly its strict control over black bodies and lives. In Keene’s stories, these lives that matter, desire justice, consider revenge, lament, and love, do so because they queer the course of History.
Throughout Counternarratives, Keene deploys a number of styles and experiments, such as two narratives inhabiting the same page (by way of separate columns) and the heavy use of ellipses to punctuate the breathless movements—not always forward—of desire. Three stories, one from each of the collection’s three sections, highlight in various ways what is at stake in these stylistic experiments.
The most ambitious of the three is also the best, “Gloss on a History of Roman Catholics in the Early American Republic, 1790–1825, or the Strange History of our Lady of Sorrows.” Beginning near the final days of French rule in Haiti, “Gloss” tells of a young house slave named Carmel. She is mute, communicating mostly through frenzied drawings depicting violent scenes and dread, drawings that prove prophetic when Haiti explodes in revolution. In the chaos, her French owners are killed, save for the teenage daughter to whom she attends, and they both are sent to a Catholic monastery in western Kentucky. Up to this point, Keene’s narration has been rather conventional. At the monastery, however, as Carmel begins to thrive intellectually and grows into written language, the conventions break down. We begin tracking her evolution through journal entries, from pidgin English to full command, and in the process Carmel is no longer merely acted upon—by her owners or her visions. She is given (or perhaps it is better to say she seizes) not only a voice but the agency finally to act (retributively) on that voice. The denouement recalls the earlier explosion of revolution in Haiti, and it is exhilarating.
Indeed, Keene has developed a fine art and eye for decisive conclusions. In the collection’s second section—“Encounternarratives”—his stories take a speculative, fanciful turn into cultural and recorded history. He imagines a meeting wherein Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer meet with a (now-freed) Jim, some twenty years after Mark Twain’s story, and mere weeks before the Civil War; another meeting occurs between Degas and his acrobat Miss La La. As in “Gloss,” in each it is a black character—formerly but a body at the disposal and viewing of others—that is the most articulate, and which also has the final say.
Keene, however, is aware that not all final statements are necessarily triumphant. In perhaps the most subtly powerful story of the collection, “Cold,” we inhabit the tortured mind of Bob Cole on his final day of life. At the turn of the 20th century, Cole was one of the preeminent and most influential black composers in America, but in “Cold” he is haunted by the cost of performing a clichéd version of blackness for a white audience. A success in terms most measurable, namely money, Cole’s musical consciousness is assaulted by a modernist, defiant dissonance, which Keene reflects in an increasingly frayed first-person narration. Cole’s final act unfolds as the author pulls the remaining thread in a single, 1.5-page sentence that never so much ends as becomes silent: “the nightmare track as your mind turns back into the blackness you count backwards joining our song no coon no more nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen nobody but Jesus if you get there before I do tell all ‘a my friends I’m coming until the music breaks into a screaming silence that if you could describe it in a word would be no word or note or sound at all but fleetingly, freeingly cold . . .”
In the final story, “The Lions,” Keene pushes this sort of cautionary ambivalence even further. With a stylistic nod toward Samuel Beckett, he stages a conversation in what begins as, the eyes having not yet adjusted, pitch dark (though it is likely to remain so for one of the characters, with suggestions that he has been blinded). A revolution has occurred. The black bodies that have inhabited the previous stories have finally had their say—they have asserted themselves—and in the course of rising against their oppressors, so have their own leaders risen against them . . . and against one another. In “The Lions,” one such leader, a former ally who has usurped the power of his predecessor, imprisoning and crippling him, meets with him for what we imagine to be the final time. The logic of silencing one’s enemies, we find, is not necessarily exclusive to the oppressor, and it is perhaps but one of colonization’s more insidiously contagious germs.
Counternarratives, in short, is no simple tableau of triumphalism. It is a call to arms of sorts, perfectly in tune with the “Black Lives Matters” declaration we see playing out daily in our cities. But it is also one that is conspicuously absent the attendant chant heard recently in Cleveland, which echoed Kendrick Lamar’s lyric, “We gonna be alright.” Keene, it seems, sees no reason to be so confident that this is so. Queering the script, defying the imperative to be silent, however, does not require confidence or a vision of what progress means. It is, rather, in all its uncertainty and risk, the most basic stuff of—the very matter of—life. It is also the crowning achievement of one of the year’s very best books.
Brad Johnson is a bookseller at Diesel Bookstore, in Oakland, California.
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