- A Multiplicity of Voices
306 Pages; Print, $24.95
Rich in both story and history, polished and spot-on in its style, Counternarratives asserts its quality in both small ways and large. Better yet, for the man behind the book, these short stories and novellas amount to a reassertion of long-dormant powers. The new book pulls together work John Keene has published over the years in places like Agni and TriQuarterly—among them fictions too long or strange for most journals—and yet it’s his first sole-author text since the very brief novel Annotations (1995), now twenty years old. Other than that, in 2014 Keene brought out a translation, similarly slim, of the controversial Brazilian Hilda Hilst, and in 2006 Seismosis, a collaboration with Christopher Stackhouse that combined text and drawing at a length of barely a hundred pages.
Both more recent books were honorable efforts, to be sure. Taking risks few writers would, consigning the work to especially small presses (Nightboat and 1913 Editions), Keene twice knocked out a few bricks from the wall that hems in the common American notions of “good reading.” Earlier he’d done the same, really, with Annotations. In a thumbnail summary, the text sounds like an ordinary conflation of Bildungsroman and social novel, dramatizing the childhood and youth of an African-American boy in Keene’s home turf of East St. Louis. Yet the prose offered no such coming-of-age comforts, unfolding in a paragraph-free collage, combining touchstones of black American experience, scraps of dead language, family material, and high erudition concerning society and its codes:
Well you needn’t. Please sign on the dotted line. This, as does each of these flares of intellection, takes notes of the structural aspects of signification. Uncle Charles and Aunt Emma stood guard before an armory of toys....
The novel, like the present text, appeared on New Directions, and that press, of course, has long struggled against constraints of convention.
Yet part of what distinguishes Counternarratives is the opposite of what’s implied in the title. Again and again, these narratives often motor along un-countered. They develop plot and sustain tension, disclose character and how it shapes fate, and enact the political in the personal. All these classic elements serve Keene’s project— and that project reveals its outlines likewise swiftly and clearly.
Each successive story takes us to another challenging increment in the history of Africans in the New World. The first, “Manahatta,” joins a Dutch freedman as he paces off a homestead in the then-wild northern reaches of the island mentioned in the title. This “Jan” or “Juan” or “João,” in other words, may be the first brother in Harlem. And while that story’s a brief, lush ghost story, the next offers the first of the longer triumphs, and its events carry the text first further into the Seventeenth Century and then beyond. The fictions that follow keep to the chronological pattern. Even the one backwards step, a story that begins in 1630 following one set on the verge of the American Revolution, lays out a drama that reaches into subsequent centuries. Later protagonists include African-American women on the early Nineteenth Century frontier, and an infantryman in one of the Civil War’s “Colored” units. One of the last takes place around 1930, back in Manhattan, and imagines a night of love doubly illicit at the time: between the Mexican poet Xavier Villaurrita, nominally “white,” and the older, darker Langston Hughes.
If such an encounter took place, too, it might’ve been the happiest night of Hughes’ life. The author of “A Dream Deferred” never came out of the closet, after all, and so the “blue darkness” shared with “mi amor” suggests a Twentieth Century equivalent of the tenuous freedom Jan or Juan hacked out, three and a half centuries earlier, amid the forests of what would become uptown. Throughout, that is, these Counternarratives also counter the tragedy of African-American experience, alleviating its sufferers’ situations in imaginative ways.
Following the sketch of Jan’s escape, for instance, the 35...