Thursday, August 20, 2015

John Keene's Counternarratives - a warning - I elude him and all of them, gliding higher

I want to write more of a warning than a review.  The book is John Keene’s Counternarratives (2015), short stories and one novella about hidden aspects of the black experience in America, mostly meaning the United States but also Haiti and Brazil.  Each story is formally distinct – written in two columns, or as a historical work, or as a (long) footnote to a different book, or as the stream of consciousness of a madman.  The novella, which is also the footnote, is written four or five different ways.

Titles include “An Outtake from the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution” and “A Letter on the Trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon.”  Often, especially early on, the key is to pay attention to the black characters hidden behind the surface story.  Soon they move to the front, often writing or telling or thinking their own stories, as in, say, “Acrobatique” where the confident acrobat Miss La La describes her meeting with Degas (the painting is in the London National Gallery), or “Cold,” where the creator of the first African-American musical is driven to suicide.  That one is stream of consciousness with inset sidebars containing his song lyrics, ironic in context, and perhaps also out.  The black characters are always unusually intelligent or talented.

Now we should all have a clear idea about the heavily conceptual aspect of the book.  Many readers would hate it, find it distant (which much of it is), resent that it suggests a person might know something about history, etc.  My warning has nothing to do with this, since Keene’s ideas about fiction are sharp and his choices of form fit the stories he tells with them.  Maybe the last one, a dialogue between two African dictators, maybe that one fell flat.

No, my warning is about “Rivers,” in which the narrator is the former Jim Watson, the slave for whom Huckleberry Finn risks Hell, describing his life subsequent to Huckleberry Finn, including his second trip into the Deep South, this time as a soldier in the Union Army.  “It was a bit daunting to take on ‘Jim’ from Mark Twain’s novels, though I also wondered why no one had done so before. (Or maybe someone has.)” says Keene in an interview.  Inevitably, the story is also about Huck Finn.

Yet the mere mention of that boy’s name, one I seldom think about, not even in dreams or nightmares, retrieves the sole two times since those years that I saw his face.  That first time the name and face had become molded to the measure of a man, still young and with a decade before him but rendered gaunt and taut by struggles unknown to me and perhaps to that writer, also from Hannibal, who had made him, both of us, briefly famous.  (219)

There is a suggestion that Huck does in fact go to Hell in some way.  Tom Sawyer, by contrast, has become, or always was, a monster.

Many versions of Jim’s story are imaginable, and Keene’s is plausible and meaningful. “Rivers” is going to be much-anthologized and much-taught, mostly alongside Huckleberry Finn.  If you have some sort of arbitrary “will it be read ten years from now” rule, I am saying the answer is “Yes!”  So will the rest of the book, but “Rivers” is going to be the famous one.  The stories disguised as Brazilian colonial history are fascinating, but unteachable to ordinary undergraduates.  “Rivers” is good but also useful.  You should know about it.

Two reviews I found useful in helping me understand Counternarratives: Adrian West in Music & Literature and Eric McDowell in Michigan Quarterly Review.  Both give a better idea than I do of what Keene is doing and why it is worthwhile.

The title quotation is from "Acrobatique," p. 247.


  1. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. The concept of exploring black history across the centuries is interesting; I'm curious about the story set in Brazil for reasons you know.

    1. And one of the stories alludes to Amilcar Cabral; last year I enjoyed reading his revolutionary writings.

  2. Keene is actually, would you believe it - you would believe it, since you are European, but Keene is American, thus the unbelievability - I say, Keene is a translator, including at least a couple of Brazilian novels.

    I thought the colonial Brazilian stories were the most interesting, but there is also a two-pager from the point of view of Mário de Andrade.

    All of the stories are linked through Sao Paulo somehow.

  3. I just got around to reading Counternarratives. As you say, the formal conceit of recognizing that blacks are as much a part of history as are whites is the central idea of the book. I assume you're right that some people will find this didactic stance off-putting, to which I say whatever, man. Keene makes some interesting choices as a writer of fiction, and a lot of good stuff is going on in the stories. "River" is probably the simplest piece to understand, and yes probably the most easy to find objectionable for defenders of Twain. An admirable little story, though.

    I enjoyed the pieces that are written like history texts, though Keene is postmodern enough that all of the narratives end up warping around themes, pulling loose from their apparent forms. The only real weak story was the one about Langston Hughes and Xavier Villaurrutia. It's like erotic fan fiction or something, less a story than notes for a story. Anyway, thanks for pointing this book out.

  4. My pleasure and then some.

    I must have written this while grumpy about some know-nothing flotsam, some 'this novel is too hard' complaint on someone's blog.