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Portals of escape: A review of Counternarratives by John Keene

By Tim Groenland.

Review of Counternarratives by John Keene

John Keene, Counternarratives (Fitzcarraldo, 2016)

The first of the protagonists we meet in John Keene’s dense and absorbing collection Counternarratives is Juan Rodriguez, the first documented non-Native American to settle on Manhattan Island. Rodriguez – who, like many of the characters in these short stories and novellas, is of African descent, is legally indentured or enslaved, and is known by names in several languages – is shown surveying the lush shore of the island (what the final pages of Gatsby memorably described as the “fresh, green breast of the new world”) at the moment of his decision to flee the Dutch trading ship on which he has arrived. Through his encounters with the natives of the island, he has attained “the key of this language that most of the Dutch on the ship assured him they could not fully hear”, and thereby “unlocked a door” to their world. As he prepares to return to the ship, he leaves a hidden message for himself, fashioning a system of signs that will mark the spot of the “portal” he has discovered so as to let him back in: “he would understand that window, climb through it.”

The story signals the ambition of the collection as well as introducing several of its key themes. Rodriguez’s arrival in 1613, coming a few short years before the arrival in New England of the Puritans, at once summons a vast vista of the enslavement and cruelty that would accompany the birth of modernity in the New World while simultaneously providing a brief, utopian glimpse of other possible realities. Rodriguez’s actions model a kind of receptivity to otherness, an epistemological fluidity that will enable him to make a barely-imaginable transition between cultural worlds. The concealed signs he leaves at the Manhattan shore foreshadow a host of cryptic documents – concealed missives required careful decoding, secret drawings hidden in mattress straw, diary entries written in multilingual shorthand – that contain an almost supernatural power to liberate. “Long hours spent in the study of any text will reveal inner, unseen contours, an abstract architecture,” the narrator of one story metafictionally informs us: Counternarratives points us towards these contours and presents the literary artwork as secret document, a prophetic samizdat whose anarchic visions can be made legible only by the closest of readings.

Counternarratives - Manhattan

Taken as a whole, the book reads as an alternative literary history, moving from slave rebellions in the early Americas to the development of Black Atlantic modernism before ending in a nightmarish vision of contemporary globalised suffering. “Rivers”, for example, runs against the grain of American mythology to provide the most direct and strikingly literal example of Keene’s project of “writing back” against received white narratives. Here, we see Jim Watson unexpectedly encountering Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer in the street some years after the events of Mark Twain’s novels have taken place. The meeting does not go well: Huck gropes for the appropriate terms of engagement, while Tom (who, let’s recall, wants to tie Jim to a tree at the beginning of The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn) is a bullying white supremacist, hectoring the ostensibly liberated man with threats and warnings about the dangers of abolitionism. Jim’s internal monologue, meanwhile, reveals an inner life far more complex than anything suggested in Twain’s novels.

Counternarratives wears many of its intertexts on its sleeve, and stories are frequently introduced – or abruptly punctuated, almost in the manner of Brecht’s dramatic “interruptions” – with quotes from thinkers like James Baldwin, Gilles Deleuze, and Frantz Fanon. The ostentatiously experimental forms of several of the pieces (which incorporate interviews, newspaper reports and pseudo-academic notes) also recall Borges’ found documents and typographical experiments. During several of the opening section’s stories I was reminded – by the slyness of the apparently detached narrative voice, the layers of irony revealed upon rereading, and the gothic unease with which colonial masters register the illusory nature of their command – of Melville’s Benito Cereno. (I wondered, too, whether the story’s title might allude to the famous “Counterpane” episode of Moby-Dick, in which Ishmael awakes with the savage Queequeg’s “loving and affectionate” arm wrapped around him).

Counternarratives, San Domingo

Keene’s imagination, it seems, is drawn to the moments immediately preceding drastic historical transition (the protracted outbreak of the American Civil War, the chaotic struggle between colonial powers for control of 17th-century Brazil), and to the brief portals of possibility opened amid social collapse. The narrative voice occasionally permits itself dry observations on the conceptual strain this places upon its characters: one colonialist, for example, behaves in a manner “which would have been suitable under the dictates of a different and vanished social order, which is to say, normal circumstances,” while another is said to be “holding out for the restoration of the prevailing order.” Many of the characters here share this hope, and few end happily. In these stories a fire is frequently raging outside the walls, and characters must escape or be consumed.

The collection’s centrepiece, the stunning “Gloss on a History of Roman Catholics in the Early American Republic, 1790-1825; Or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows”, begins, like several others, in the shadows of violent transformation. In this case, the historical rupture is the slave uprising at the turn of the nineteenth century that turned the French colony of Saint-Domingue into modern-day Haiti. After several feints and left turns, the story comes to centre on the figure of Carmel, a mute slave who endures a tortuous journey from the Caribbean to a convent and school in Kentucky. Carmel is blessed with an ambiguous artistic gift, being impelled to create spontaneous, visionary drawings that hint at impending disasters (of which the narrative will contain quite a few). The novella accretes into a kind of gothic Bildungsroman, proceeding through a number of formal shifts including visual tableaux, philosophical interpolations, cryptic dialogues and official reports to a remarkable and supernatural conclusion.

The book’s second section presents a cluster of stories that could be described, for the most part, as virtuosic riffs on some of the touchstones of Modernist art, narratives of black diasporic creation that seek to uncover what racial and gender assumptions have elided. “Acrobatique,” for example, takes the form of a monologue by Olga Kaira, the mixed-race acrobat immortalised in Edgar Degas’ “Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando,” in which the voice of the story serves to direct the reader away from the image fixed by the painter to the aeralist’s dynamic feat of gravity-defiance. “Blues,” meanwhile, makes Langston Hughes’ elliptical “Poem” (I loved my friend./He went away from me./There is nothing more to say) the footnote to an affair between the poet and his Mexican translator Xaviar Villaurrutia.

John Keene

The voices here (which include those of W.E.B. DuBois and Mário de Andrade) are richly imagined, but there is a slight dissipation of effect as the brevity of the pieces, along with the necessary jumps in style, time and place, causes the section to lose some of the accumulated power built up in the earlier novella-length stories. Taken as a whole, though, the book achieves a lasting power (and becomes far more than a rote representation of postcolonial theory) through the relentlessly inventive way in which its structural, tonal and linguistic shifts enact the dynamic and destabilizing processes described in its narratives; footnotes abruptly take over from the “main” text, the narrative voice abruptly shifts register, and identities continually transform and exceed the limits that the narrative seems to have placed upon them.

“The Lions,” the final story, brings us up to something approaching the present day and effects another swerve by placing us in a cell in an unnamed country somewhere in (to judge by the clues) Central Africa. Here, two former revolutionaries and lovers conduct a macabre dialogue on the nature of power and control, revealing the depths of depravity wrought by centuries of colonial exploitation. One of the men is referred to as “Prophet” and we seem here to have an inverse vision of the supernatural possibilities glimpsed in the earlier stories: “mysticism, ritual, [and] pageantry” have long since been “emptied of content”, and the fluidity of erotic encounter has given way to tyranny and domination. It’s a bleak and disturbing end point, and if there is possibility here it can be glimpsed only in the series of ellipses that end the dialogue, and the collection: Counternarratives seems to suggest that it is in silence, the gaps between (and beyond) language, that the portals of escape must be sought.


Tim Groenland

Tim Groenland teaches in the School of English in Trinity College, Dublin and in the School of English, Drama, and Film in University College Dublin. His research focuses on the role of editors in twentieth- and twenty-first century US fiction, particularly in the works of Raymond Carver and David Foster Wallace.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, August 25th, 2016.