This past year has seen an outpouring of reflections about race relations in America unmatched since the early ’90s — a time when the opinion pages teemed with issues ranging from the police beating of Rodney King to whether or not Toni Morrison deserved the Nobel Prize. For most of this young century, other issues have harnessed attention. Accordingly, if you’d solicited my marketing advice not too long ago about the commercial viability of an avant-garde writer who plumbs the variegated nature of black identity, I might have jocularly replied that unless his work also featured I.E.D.s, fundamentalists, or insights into the shadow banking system, his sales prospects were likely dismal. Thank God that the staff at New Directions have made it their business to bet on the future, because in the era of the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s possible that John Keene’s moment has arrived.
Keene’s first book, Annotations (1995), is a spellbinding bildungsroman about a precocious kid growing up in St. Louis. The book is a masterpiece of concision — it’s only eighty-five pages long — and associative prose poetry. Subjects arise and dissolve with the delicacy of blown soap bubbles. A lyrical passage like this is typical:
Loneliness is solitude unrelieved by its own presence. Their eyes fled this text, or perhaps its context, one infers, out of a fear of contamination. Mild and muddy springs, hot and humid summers, brief and balmy autumns, how they sabotaged one’s readiness for winter. We were admonished to wear caps to prevent an attack of heatstroke, since our heads, small lots of blacktop, proved extraordinary attractors to the sun.
Reading through the book, I felt as though I was being welcomed into the bosom of long-standing family relations. Keene’s portrait of the artist as a young man resonated with my own childhood experiences of catching lightning bugs, gazing upon boats that spent more time in yards than in the water, and minding parental admonishments to be polite.
In retrospect, I now see that the intimate atmosphere of Annotations adversely chilled my initial impressions of Keene’s new book, Counternarratives, a collection of stories spanning the settlement of the New World to the depravations of the Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp. The first time I read “Mannahatta,” which is about an ex-slave who has purchased his freedom and vows to make a go at becoming a professional trader, the prose struck me as descriptive yet dry — more geographic detail than internal illumination. In a blog post for the Story Prize — an award for which Keene’s book has been nominated — the author describes the internal music of “Mannahatta” as “a rhythm of assembly, fitting together sonically, rhetorically, and rhythmically, to create the scene in which the action occurs.” The word that sticks out to me in that appraisal is “assembly” for indeed I recognized the story’s technical prowess, which captures the raw potential of an untamed landscape — Manhattan before it became Manhattan — but as I remarked to another fan of Keene’s, “I feel like I’m just reading sentences.”
The following story, “On Brazil, or Dénouement: The Londonias-Figueiras,” about a slave-holding family in the seventeenth century and its scion, a ruthless military officer known as the Colonel, seemed to confirm my first impression. I left pencil marks beside sentences such as this observation of the men chafing under the Colonel’s command who for a moment forget their antipathy: “The Colonel’s men have no choice; how quickly we forget the repellent aspects of personality in moments of crisis, which permit the illusion of unity against more dangerous foes.” Or here, where the festering head of one of the Colonel’s victims is unceremoniously disposed of: “Londonia ordered it removed [from his house] and cast out into the voracious river, very likely, like a vial bearing a message of incalculable importance.” Arresting — but altogether more detached than the voice that made Annotations so memorable.
However, as with many experimental works, you first need to learn the broad outlines of the project before you can begin to appreciate its particulars. None of the stories in Counternarratives that feature people currently held in bondage seem intent at worming their way into readers’ good graces. There is something downright oppositional to a piece such as “A Letter on the Trial of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon,” with its soporific, Latinate sentences that detail the happenings at a slave-owning monastery. The overly long sentences work to highlight the rigid formalities the monks adhere to, to the detriment of their darker-skinned brothers in Christ.
Thankfully, around halfway through Counternarratives, the stories become far more emotive. Set near the start of the Civil War, “The Aeronauts” tells the story of a free black teenager, a resident of Philadelphia, who works as a server at the Academy. He follows the proceedings closely, but is ever mindful that his lower caste necessitates that he refrain from asking the learned men gathered there the sorts of questions that burble up inside of him. As a matter of fact, his mind is somewhat of a curiosity to the organization’s members, one of whom likes to play a “game” with him whereby, in the company of his colleagues, he asks what the teenager has learned from the lecture of the day. Leery of attracting the ill-humor of his boss, who forbids fraternization between his employees and the guests, the teenager limits his responses to short regurgitations of key points, which his interlocutors take as signs of a prodigious memory rather than an active intelligence. Still, his performance is enough to win him an offer of employment from the assistant to a balloonist working for the Union army.
“The Aeronauts,” was the first story in the collection to win me over from the outset on account of the fact that the main character in portrayed in a number of different lights — calculating, randy, industrious, capable of speaking in different registers to different people — in other words, fully human.
In “Acrobatique” — a wonderfully measured account of the black acrobat Olga “Miss LaLa” Kaira, who attracted the painterly eye of Degas — the artiste sums up her ambition:
I intend to spend every waking hour in the air, to soar with the brio of a sparrowhawk and glide with a sparrow’s ease and float, as Kaira [my partner] and I do, as the audience perches on the tips of their seats, with the lightness of two creatures who have fully emerged from the chrysalis, how I want to suspend the entire city of Paris or even France itself from my lips if I could achieve that, how I aim to exceed every limit placed upon me unless I place it there, because that is what I think of when I think of freedom, that I have gathered around me people who understand how to translate fear into possibility, who have no wings but fly beyond the most fantastical vision of the clouds . . .
One finds a similar sense of complicated interiority and self-possession in the book’s other stories which move further away from the all-consuming context of slavery — which, again, leaves the reader to wonder if that was the point of the suffocating flatness of the earlier stories.
The emotional pitch steadily rises until the book’s final story, “The Lions,” which addresses the politics of fear used to keep a population docile through the invocation of an existential threat posed by some nefarious Other. I confess, I found that story to be unbearably tedious — a jeremiad that felt like it was speaking to the choir rather than unpacking some unnoticed ideology — but the license Keene takes, here as elsewhere, is that of an un-simpering artist unafraid to not always entertain.