Counternarratives by John Keene

Counternarratives BY John Keene. New Directions. Hardcover, 320 pages. $24.
The cover of Counternarratives

The American author John Keene writes sentences that begin in states of tight restraint, steadily loosen, unravel, sprawl or expand, and then—in their last few beats—contract suddenly into piercingly acute points. One such sentence comes two-thirds of the way into an epically named story, "Gloss on A History of Roman Catholics in the Early American Republic, 1790-1825; Or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows," included in Keene's remarkable new short fiction collection Counternarratives. The sentence conveys—among other things—one of the story's grimmest plot twists. A dead, unidentified newborn has been found at a secluded convent in early-nineteenth-century Kentucky. None of the nuns or students could have been responsible, two schoolgirls decide among themselves, because "none of them could possibly have been with child."

And it had not come from any of the slaves, Josephine assured Mary Margaret, because, as they'd seen with their own eyes when the sheriff had thrust the tiny, mud glazed corpse into the Mother Superior's hands, Mary Margaret gasping at the very memory, its tiny fists seizing at the air, its mud-caked face petrified in a shriek, its icy-blue eyes staring out fishlike as if glimpsing the netherworld for the first time, its azure placenta eeling out of its swaddling, and most horribly, the calligraphy of marks and hatches, as if a demonic stylus had drawn across its forehead and chest, it had been as clear to everyone assembled, all the nuns, all the schoolgirls, all the slaves, and the sheriff and his party of a dozen, that although the withered infant body had been found bundled in what appeared to be a slave girl's shift, it was not a product, as he had clearly noted, Josephine's voice breaking, "of that infernal race."

There are stylistic traces of gothic fiction across several of the stories and novellas in Counternarratives: its tantalizingly withheld secrets, its surplus of descriptive clauses, its hyperbolic adjective phrases ("a demonic stylus") and opinionated interjections ("most horribly"). Keene has a gift for channeling archaic literary idioms, and it's no accident that many of the styles he most often slips into—epistolary narratives; histories of maritime exploration and trade—are relics from a specific stage in Western Europe's colonial past. The stories in Counternarratives all address the efforts of enslaved or nominally free people of color to give their stymied, overflowing consciousnesses room to unfold, and a similar effort is evident in Keene's style. Practically every sentence in the book perforates, stretches out, or pries open literary modes designed to be airtight, restrictive, and racially exclusionary. What Keene does to the fabric of archaic English and American prose is something close to what the mute slave girl at the center of "Gloss" tells her terrified young mistress the revolutionaries in Saint-Domingue want to do to the girl's colonial home: "TEAR THE WHITE OUT."

As early as the book's front matter—with its combative title and its opening epigraphs from James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, and the contemporary poet Fred Moten—it's clear that the business of reimagining old, traditionally white literary forms will be part of Counternarratives' job. But Keene, who turns fifty this year and spent many years as a member of the Dark Room Writer's Collective, a Boston-based collective of black artists, is too imaginative and lively to limit himself to only this sort of revisionist work.

Keene was born in St. Louis during what he called, on the first page of his 1995 autobiographical novel Annotations, "a summer of Malcolms and Seans, as Blacks were transforming the small nation of Watts into a graveyard of smoldering metal." Counternarratives is the first book of fiction Keene has published since that dense, essayistic novel, and his first to draw heavily on traditional story structures. Keene is clearly enamored with the formal qualities of encounter narratives, epistolary fictions, and ghost stories, and he makes full use of the particular sets of dramatic possibilities they open up. An expert generator of suspense, he also turns out to be a skilled humorist, a mischievous ironist, a deft, seductive storyteller and a studied historian, equally knowledgeable about America's strange, patchwork pre-Civil War era and about the slave trade in Brazil when that country was under Portuguese colonial rule. The way these two subjects overlap and diverge throughout Counternarratives is one of the guiding principles behind its complex latticework of histories and styles.

The Portuguese figures at the center of "On Brazil or Dénouement: The Londonias-Figueiras" and "A Letter on the Trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon" never develop anything more than a crude, uncomprehending picture of the seventeenth-century Brazil to which they've been sent. When the violent explorer of the earlier story comes across the leader of a settlement in the colony's interior, "a tall, gray-haired African, of influential bearing," he kills the man, decapitates him, and—at his wife's insistence—has the head "cast out into the voracious river." The story has the tone of a history but the texture of a fairy tale; as late as its final sentence, the explorer's twentieth-century descendants suffer a grisly, strange sort of payback for their ancestor's crimes. The pious, self-denying monk in "A Letter . . . " avoids the same fate by acknowledging what the characters in "On Brazil . . . " never learned: that the colonized peoples in these stories have a mysterious, supernatural power over the worlds in which they move.

It's appropriate that Keene is fascinated by seers, magicians, shamans and prophets—characters capable of disrupting, re-structuring, or re-writing a space. Consider, for instance, the speech a previously nondescript slave makes in "A Letter . . . " after he emerges as the story's prime mover: "I can read the past and future. I can speak to the living, as now, and to the dead. I can feel the weather before it turns and the night before it falls. Every creature that walks this earth converses with me. I am such a one who is both." A similar tone—stiff, weighty, oracular—emerges from Carmel, the mute bondswoman in "Gloss . . . ," when the narration shifts into her voice. At the end of the story, she walks like an avenging angel through the burning halls of the convent in which she's been enslaved:

I thought about letting the nuns counter the Reverend and the townspeople on their own, but it was not, it seemed to me, the charitable thing to do, and although they had assisted in the maintenance of my bondage, that would endure as a cross for their consciences to bear. I roused each of them from their prayers, their default response in the face of an approaching threat, as if they had lost all command of reason, and set them to motion.

In "Rivers," the Jim of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, now a freedman, enlists in the Union army. His reflections as he marches through a Missouri forest come through in a more inquisitive, searching variation of the same prophetic voice. "Have you ever noticed," he asks no one in particular, "how on the decisive day the light comes through the trees a certain way, how the patterns of the future reveal themselves as a ghost language and you got to do more than just pay attention but use all the knowledge and wisdom you have ever gained to interpret it?"

One of the running ironies of Counternarratives is that many of its characters actually do have the threatening, supernatural powers their white masters and colonizers attribute to them and belittle. ("You black witch," Carmel's young mistress whispers to her near the story's end in reference to the bondwoman's "demonic writings" and "hellish illustrations"—all, the girl insists, "gibberish and nonsense;" just as Jim's portents are, in the eyes of his commanding officer, "mumbo jumbo and hoodoo claptrap.") Whatever magical powers these figures have, however, are markers less of exoticism or Otherness than of intelligence—of "all the knowledge and wisdom" it's been part of their life's work to gain. It's only at the end of "A Letter . . . " that Burunbana, the seer who can "feel the weather before it turns and the night before it falls," exposes himself as the author of the story's highly refined prose. Jim spends much of his interior monologue reflecting on what he didn't tell a reporter who's corralled him into an interview. At the end of her prodigious narration, Carmel decides to leave the job of writing "the noises that filled that hot and moonless night in Kentucky" to "someone more devoted to"—but not, necessarily, more skilled in—"the genre of literature than I."

In these stories, the kinds of magical displays white colonizers associate with savagery become literary powers. To have them is to read—as Jim puts it in "Rivers"—the signs at your disposal well, to know the weight of words, to out-perform your colonists or masters at the verbal systems they developed for their own use. Elsewhere in Counternarratives, these powers come out in more prosaic forms. The hero of "The Aeronauts," a young Philadelphia freedman who manages to enlist in the Army Balloon Corps on the cusp of the Civil War, proves himself by memorizing, reading, and reciting passages of comically obtuse, professorial prose. ("As things stand in our continuing contributions to Science in the defense of our UNION this corps fortunately does need Hands . . . ") In "Persons and Places," which juxtaposes two imagined diary entries dated from the same day in 1890, the imposing Harvard philosopher George Santayana confesses having "noted" a certain W.E.B. Du Bois "haunting the precincts of the Yard, books peeking from his tattered leather satchel, his cheeks the color of tea into which several tablespoons of sweet cream have been poured, that gaze pressing intently towards some hidden point."

And yet the most thrilling stories in Counternarratives are those, like "Gloss . . . ," that give a character's voice enough space to erupt or overflow. Writers like James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, or Bohumil Hrabal, who let their characters indulge in lengthy mental exercises and anguished self-assessments, are obvious reference points for the constellation of shorter stories near the end of the book: "Acrobatique," a propulsive interior monologue by a dark-skinned trapeze artist that unrolls in a single marathon sentence; "Cold," in which the African American vaudeville songwriter Bob Cole gives a detailed, second-person account of the hours leading up to his suicide; and "Blues," a romantic encounter between Langston Hughes and the Mexican poet Xavier Villaurrutia, sketched out in a string of short, elliptical phrases. But the ways in which words cascade hurriedly over one another in these stories, the torrential speed at which they rush, arguably comes instead from Keene's deep engagement with a reckless, explosive strain of Brazilian modernism. Keene translated Hilda Hilst's late novel Letters from a Seducer in 2014, and the quality he assigned her in an interview that year—"a desire to surpass the limits of language imposed by anyone"—could be just as easily attributed to Clarice Lispector, João Guimarães Rosa, or Mário de Andrade, of whom there's a lovely, three-page prose portrait late in Counternarratives. It holds no less for Keene's protagonists.

Beneath the textual game-playing of Counternarratives' earlier stories—"Gloss . . . " is presented as a single, seventy-five-page footnote to some other text—and the roiling, coursing verbal energies of its subsequent ones, there is an unmistakable note of hushed anger, a submerged rage that rushes to the surface only in the book's final pages. The collection ends with "The Lions," a cryptic dialogue between an imprisoned, disfigured "prophet" and the acolyte he tried and failed to eliminate during an unidentified, pogrom-like purge. It's a strange, jarring final performance, full of exchanges like this:

I thought you had a hologram of the world, of everyone else's head, in yours, a cybernetic game turning it every which way, the dates, the days, the figures, the complicated transactional interplay of everything materializing in its array, with the will to realize it . . . You with all your thinkers and dreamers, those bards, black, brown, yellow, white, whatever the color, that cannot save a single soul, including you.

Yes, my avatars, my monsters, I can hear their words right now.

You even wrote your thesis on Amílcar Cabral, another poet, one of ours.

No, Frantz Fanon. On the justification and cleansing power of violence, in the service of revolution.

Blood for the stanzas, odes to gore. That brain, so sharp, cutting even now like a well-honed trap, correcting me. I did say I want to be surprised, though the squeak, as you liked to say, cries out to be silenced.

In isolation, this story is a literary creation of quiet, unsettling power. Coming at the end of a collection of short fictions united by, among other things, their historical precision—their investment in conjuring the ghosts of this particular place, here and now—it strikes a discordant note. It is as if Keene decided to pursue a language as bare, stark, and uninflected as possible—the very opposite of the "vast, polysemous linguistic register" he once attributed to Hilst and aspires to himself throughout the rest of Counternarratives. This brief story is a fittingly chilling coda to a collection about one of the most shameful continuing threads in the history of the Americas, but it also makes you long for the capacious, pulsating sentences that fill the rest of the book. And it makes you reflect on why Keene felt the need to disown a language he'd done so much successful work, over the course of the collection, to reclaim and reconfigure in such surprising, imaginative ways.

Max Nelson's writings on film and literature have appeared in The Threepenny Review, n+1, Film Comment, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications.