Reading the Past and the Future: John Keene’s Counternarratives

Daniel Green

New York, NY: New Directions, 2015. 320 pages. $24.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

John Keene’s Counternarratives is neither a collection of short stories, nor the sort of linked novel-by-proxy series that has become increasingly common in the past decade or so. This extraordinary book is instead unified by the conceit invoked in its title: its stories all counter, challenge, or subvert established narratives about race and slavery in the history of the Americas. Together their effect is to disrupt and disorient our settled notions about the agency of the enslaved and exploited, and about the intelligibility of history itself.

The first story in the book, “Manhatta,” briefly tells of the original landing on Manhattan Island of Juan Rodriguez, the first non-indigenous inhabitant of what is now New York City, establishing the iconoclastic spirit of Counternarratives by reminding us that the first “settler” in what became the largest city in the United States was in fact a man of African descent. “Manhatta” is followed by “On Brazil, or Dénouement: The Londônias-Figueriras,” which moves the setting to Brazil, whose development as a slaveholding Portuguese colony is traced alongside that of the US through the book’s first section. This story reminds us that slavery was a phenomenon endemic to the European colonization of the Western hemisphere (as does “Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of Sorrows”), while “An Outtake from the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution” makes us remember that in the American colonies slavery was accepted in the North as well as the South.

But these stories do not simply represent enslaved Africans as the oppressed victims of European colonial cupidity. The black protagonists in stories such as “Gloss,” “An Outtake,” and “A Letter on the Trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon” are strong-willed and dauntless in their desire for freedom, and they possess a distinctive power of their own. In “Gloss” and “Lisbon,” this power is expressed in the characters’ moral stature and palpable accomplishments, but also through a spiritual force that at times manifests as essentially supernatural. The latter story is narrated (as we discover at its conclusion) by a slave known to the whites as Joao Baptista, but who informs the ostensible protagonist, the provost of a Catholic mission, that he wants to be called by his African name, Burunbara. Burunbara, it turns out, “can read the past and the 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.” “Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of Sorrow” features an enslaved woman named Carmel, who, after the family she serves is killed during the Haitian revolution, accompanies the only surviving daughter to a convent in Kentucky. Carmel’s powers of divination allow her to speak with the dead and give her access to a world beyond sensory experience that she renders in visionary works of art.

Burunbara and Carmel share this oracular insight with James Alton Rivers, formerly known as Huckleberry Finn’s raft companion Jim Watson in Mark Twain’s novel. In “Rivers,” Jim has attained his freedom, and the story begins with an encounter Jim has with both Huck and Tom Sawyer in St. Louis. Tom has predictably enough become a garden-variety white supremacist:

You’d better watch yourself, Jim, you hear me? Good thing we know you but walking these streets like they belong to you, and they don’t to no nigger, no matter what some of you might think these days, so watch it, cause the time’ll come when even the good people like me and Huck here have had enough.

Nobody who has read either Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or The Adventures of Tom Sawyer carefully can really be surprised that the adult Tom holds these views, nor that Huck, in contrast, shows signs of retaining his respect for Jim. Tom Sawyer’s “adventures” are possible because he is a young white boy whose freedom is predicated on the unfreedom of others, and his “mischief” is more often callous and self-involved than innocent. Huck’s adventures, on the other hand, force him to confront the realities of the culture that has shaped him, and in the process, he also must acknowledge his common humanity with the “runaway slave” who has shared his journey. If in “Rivers” Huck doesn’t exactly sound like the dissenting voice that, at the conclusion of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, announces the intent to “light out for the territory,” he does try to restrain Tom in his racist taunting. Keene doesn’t counter Twain’s portrayal of Huck and Tom so much as extend that portrayal to its probable outcome in their maturity.

What Keene does counter is the popular perception of Tom Sawyer as the prototypical American boy, offering instead a glimpse at what American “innocence” can seamlessly become. Certainly Keene also contests the perception of Jim as simply Huck’s amiable and superstitious companion, assisting in Huck’s education in the ways of the world and acting as the catalyst in his possible moral enlightenment. Here Jim tells us his own story, and his superstition has become an ability to read “omens” that is valuable when he joins the First Missouri Colored Troops during the Civil War. The most unsettling moment in “Rivers” is undoubtedly the conclusion, in which Jim’s company is confronted by a Confederate brigade:

. . . I usually kept to the reader as I was ordered to, but Anderson urged several of us to crawl out to the edge of the field, near the river, where there was a stand of Montezuma cypresses, which I did and when I rounded them flat on my stomach, creeping forward like a panther I saw it, that face I could have identified if blind in both eyes, him, in profile, the agate eyes in a squint, that sandy ring of beard collaring the gaunt cheeks the soiled gray jacket half open and hanging around the sun-reddened throat, him crouching reloading his gun, quickly glancing up and around him so as not to miss anything.

This scene disturbs not because it undercuts a plausible narrative about the likely fates of Huck and Jim, but because it is that narrative. If we are to take these fictional characters and imagine them real, with subsequent life stories true to historical circumstances, the scenario Keene presents is entirely believable. The influence of the slave culture in which Twain depicts both Huck and Tom being raised is not easily eluded; the vow to “go to hell” rather than betray a friend cannot easily negate the overwhelming social pressure to show solidarity with one’s own and help defeat the Union invaders. The final encounter between Jim and Huck that Keene provides prompts us to reconsider any notion we might have that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, however much its protagonist might experience individual moral progression, tells us much about the social progression necessary to make Huck’s story more than a pleasing fiction.

If the myth of Huckleberry Finn cannot be sustained in the light of historical reality, Jim endures with his dignity and self-respect intact, at least through the compelling reimagining undertaken by Keene. “The Aeronauts” shares with “Rivers” a Civil War–era setting and concerns the narrator’s experience as an employee of the “Balloon Corps” near the beginning of the war. “The Aeronauts” is perhaps the lightest, most humorous story in the book, although it also provides a vivid sense of black life in Philadelphia, as well as a portrait of wartime Washington. The bleakest story is no doubt the last, “The Lions” (given a separate final section, identified simply as a “Counternarrative”). Where most of the other stories are very specific in details of setting and historical period, this story is generalized and abstract, existing in “un-time,” as one of the two characters puts it, presented as an extended dialogue between a deposed ruler and his successor, who has presumably staged a coup, but who is also a longtime comrade in arms. Their conversation reveals a violent and ruthless past of the kind we unfortunately associate with many postcolonial regimes: “All those car crashes, overdoses, bodies found at the bottom of drained swimming pools, riverbeds, earthen dams, sudden bathroom electrocutions, sharp, heavy projectiles flying through windows while people were eating their morning meals. . . .” Keene depicts these two characters as quite obviously unscrupulous and brutal, but they did not become so in a moral or historical vacuum:

Did you not learn anything from the brazen creatures who seized our mothers and fathers, who bought and sold them here and across the sea, who fought them here and over there and did not back down? The ones to whom you signed over so much of our matrimony and patrimony? Their puny bodies that melt in the sun, all their sicknesses of the flesh and mind and soul, yet they keep arriving. Their words, their ideas, their abstractions, the ones you love so much, gave them an armor of fearlessness. . . .

If “The Lions” is a “counternarrative,” we might interpret it first of all as counter to the previous stories that have portrayed their protagonists exercising special powers in productive and responsible ways to resist their oppressive circumstances. The two dictators in “The Lions” abuse power, wield it in a way that degrades rather than transforms. At the same time, a sense of disillusion and betrayal pervade the dialogue, suggesting that power was initially pursued with better intentions but those intentions were corrupted—as if the life the two men actually lived was the counternarrative to the life they sought. The story adds an element of tragic complexity to the book; the figures portrayed are free enough from the subjection of those “brazen creatures” with their “armor of fearlessness” to claim a kind of autonomy, but not so free that their autonomy can’t be undermined by the weaknesses of human nature.

The term “Counternarratives” takes on at least one more meaning if we consider Keene’s formal strategies. Keene’s Counternarratives is a heftier book than Keene’s 1995 novella Annotations, his only other published work of fiction. Annotations is a bildungsroman of sorts, although as the title suggests, it is closer to being a commentary on a possible coming-of-age story, notes toward such a work. The novella blends autobiographical narrative with terse allusions and abstract reflection, even literary criticism. If in Annotations Keene attempts to use his own life experience as the medium for a more detached exegesis and elaboration, in Counternarratives he does something similar with history itself, subjecting it to complication, revision, and reassessment. Although almost every story in the book offers a tangible narrative, few if any are related in a conventional narrative mode, which is, after all, precisely the kind of storytelling that for so long has failed to acknowledge a central role for the black experience. “A Letter on the Trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon” is in the form of a letter. “Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of Sorrows” is literally a gloss, an extended footnote or commentary on what begins as a work of history of Catholicism in early America. “Persons and Places” is a double-columned story simultaneously describing a fleeting encounter between George Santayana and W.E.B. DuBois from the perspective of each man, while “Blues,” about a tryst between Langston Hughes and a visiting Mexican poet, is told through what seems a series of notations rather than narrative exposition. In its engaging, often exhilarating use of alternative or unorthodox forms, Counternarratives abundantly demonstrates what “innovative” fiction at its best can accomplish: sometimes narrative content that challenges longstanding presumptions can be adequately expressed only through equally challenging extensions of form.

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