In 1995, a young writer named John Keene published a marvelous, odd, and slender book called Annotations. The title was very much of the era—think Roland Barthes’s Mythologies and Raymond Williams’s Keywords, then still in heavy circulation in your hipper university lit departments. It was a slim, slippery thing, not quite a memoir and not exactly a novel, as heady and at times abstruse as its title suggested. Its methods were equally poetic and novelistic, but something was lacking, like a house glimpsed in a dream, all windows and doors but no walls. In the book’s final sentence, the author advised that it should be understood as “a series of mere life-notes, aspiring to the condition of annotations” (italics mine). It was, or aspired to be, a collection of marginalia to a missing text, the contours of which the reader was left to divine.
That text sometimes looked a lot like Keene himself: black, gay, raised in St. Louis, enamored with language, tormented by it. (“In the absence of a system of pure and unmediated signs, he nearly gave up on living altogether.”) Alternately, it followed the trajectory of a single family, “bourgeois yet working-class,” as they ascended from Catholicism to Presbyterianism, moved to the suburbs, unraveled due to largely unspecified causes (“A clue, alcohol”), and through it all raised a child they did not know exactly what to make of. “Neither parent had expected such a fragile character,” wrote Keene, and he repeated the assertion almost verbatim 16 pages later. The absent text, the one under annotation, appeared also to trace the recent history of something we might hesitantly call “Black America,” beginning “as Blacks were transforming the small nation of Watts into a graveyard of smoldering metal,” and winding a path through “Urban Renewal” (or, as Keene translates, “it’s the Black folks that got to go”) and the violence, despair, and fragmentation left in its wake. Panning out just a little, Keene’s missing text seemed to have the same shape as the country at large. “Montgomery. My Lai,” read one note. “To what extent is American history the history of American capital,” read another, without a concluding question mark. Later, “the actor assumed the nation’s highest office.” Beneath it all, the lash of slavery—buried and ignored, if never all that far away.
But Keene took great care not to actually write those narratives. He wanted them visible only via refraction, as if through mirrors or the slats of a blind, which makes it feel a bit unfair to suss them out like this, to lend them a fullness and presence that he thought it so important to avoid. “Oozing, seething magma of presence, what I represents,” he wrote with disgust in what I believe is the only instance in which the first-person-singular pronoun appears outside of quoted dialogue. While writing about himself, or some past and perhaps fictive version of it, Keene used “you” or “he”—as in “He was usually charily chosen for the kick-ball teams, or last for any sport requiring aggression,” or “but what you sought, like any artist, were the very events themselves.” Sometimes he went with “we” or “they,” but never with that stabbing “I.” Many sentences remained gloriously free of any consistent grammatical subject: “Jumping double-dutch, till the night sky touched the ground, or jacks, but still the girls would play too fairly.” This, of course, was the idea: to sketch out a subjectivity at once as local and diffuse, as concrete and elusive, as the thing itself. Which is neither thing nor self, and neither here nor there, but some intimate yet disparate other embedded in history, culture, race, community, as much as in any single body, or single mind.
For all its insistence on diffuseness, Annotations was nonetheless a very lonely book, 85 brief pages and a thousand or so scattered angles on the experience of exile—from history, from culture, from one’s own peers, family, flesh. From language even, or one vision of it. By the volume’s end—the 1980s, and the grim advent of adulthood—nearly everything is broken. Fortunately, Keene suggested, there is literature, a way out. Poems, he wrote, are “maps to realizable liberty…each finished text a step closer to the zone of deliverance.” Salvation, though, is a heavy burden for mere words to bear. The long lag between that book and his next—11 years—suggests that he had merely given himself a new problem. Map and terrain are two very different things. Literature might be the answer, but what kind of literature? What path? Which words, and in what order? Keene would wander slowly. In 2006, he published Seismosis, a collection of poems written in collaboration with the artist Christopher Stackhouse, and another eight years would pass before the publication of his translation of the Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst’s Letters From a Seducer. This spring brought Counternarratives, the first sizable gathering of Keene’s own prose, comprising 11 stories and two novellas. If a map was wanting, a map we have.
Counternarratives is no less ambitious or complex a work than Annotations, but it is considerably more approachable. Yet it is a book of such richness that it’s hard to know where to begin, so I’ll start with a moment—and there are many of these—where Keene’s text slides into another’s. This one occurs in a novella with the sly, unwieldy title “Gloss on a History of Roman Catholics in the Early American Republic, 1790–1825; or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows.” Like many of his stories, it’s quite epic for its length. It follows a young and variously gifted enslaved woman named Carmel as she accompanies her erstwhile master (mistress, really—a teenage girl holds title to her body) from Haiti in the throes of revolution to a Catholic convent school in Kentucky, which was then on the far western fringes of the young American Republic. Keene interrupts the narrative with several brief intertextual meditations on “the role of duty,” one of which leads with a quote from Gilles Deleuze and concludes with a question: “Within the context shaped by a musket barrel, is there any ethical responsibility besides silence, resistance and cunning?”
The question echoes a line of Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus. (From Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. You remember: “I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning.”) For both writers, cunning is key and the silence referred to strategic, selective, and far from absolute. But the difference between Joyce’s words and Keene’s is more revealing than the overlap. Joyce chose “exile.” Keene goes with “resistance.” When the context is a musket barrel—which in the era of Michael Brown, it still very much is for some—this is less of a choice than it seems. What use is claiming exile when you are already there? When the existing narratives not only demean and exclude you but aim for your utter disappearance, flight is not among the options. Keene quotes Audre Lorde in an epigraph: “So it is better to speak / remembering / we were never meant to survive.” And so you either fight or die—a death that may or may not be metaphorical. Keene fights, and does so with grace, an agile and often vicious wit, and a stubborn, crackling beauty.
“To speak of culture,” Keene wrote in Annotations, “is to foreshadow a battle.” With Counternarratives, Keene is engaged, the battle roaring on several fronts at once. As in his previous book, there are missing texts at work in all these stories. This time, they are the reader’s assumptions and expectations, the dominant narratives—historical and political as well as strictly literary—with which we conjure the world and reproduce it, exclusions and erasures intact. Probably the most exemplary of them in that regard is “Rivers,” a tender and brutal tale in which Keene avenges a historic injustice, granting Mark Twain’s Jim the opportunity to narrate his own post-Huckleberry life. Tom Sawyer has aged into a less charming version of the glib sadist we always knew he was. Huck is broken and earnest and sad. And Jim, who has in freedom renamed himself James Alton Rivers, is something Twain never allowed him to be: a man of complexity and depth, with his own loves, tragedies, desires. Even here, Keene lets the telling be hinged on white hunger for a narrative in which Jim will always be pushed aside. The story is spurred by a—presumably white—reporter’s question about “the time you and that little boy…” Jim shushes him with a glance, annoyed because “this is supposed to be an interview about the war and my service in it”—at 46, Jim enlisted in the First Missouri Colored Troops and fought with them all the way to Texas. He seldom even thinks of Huck Finn anymore, “not even in dreams or nightmares.” I won’t give away the end, but you will never think of either Jim or Huck in quite the same way after reading it.
Some of Keene’s stories are slight things, a single idea fleshed out. Langston Hughes and the Mexican poet Xavier Villaurrutia pass an amorous night in a midtown Manhattan hotel room. Kaira la Blanche, also known as Miss LaLa and the Black Venus, and best remembered as the trapeze artist painted by Edgar Degas, gets to tell her own story: “I aim to exceed every limit placed on me unless I place it there, because that is what I think of when I think of freedom.” The vaudeville composer Bob Cole, paralyzed by depression and guilt over “all those godforsaken songs, that cooning and crooning minstrelsy,” is destroyed by strange music in his head, “a sound that sounds like the inside of a sound,” so chaotic and cacophonous that it cannot possibly be performed. W.E.B. Du Bois passes George Santayana on the street in Cambridge. We read both of their perspectives in parallel columns of text. Neither of them says hi.
But the best stories here are the longer ones and the two novellas, in which every available form of literary irony—every possible way of forcing stubborn words to mean more than they pretend—seems to be working at once. There are plot twists and surprise endings. Power relations are fortuitously reversed. The enslaved and oppressed—in Massachusetts in the late 1700s, Brazil in 1630, Haiti and Kentucky at the turn of the 19th century, Philadelphia and Washington, DC, at the beginning of the Civil War—do not suffer their chains, and find ways to break them. In “Gloss on a History of Roman Catholics,” young Carmel bides her time. She has every chance to abandon her mistress, “the sickly, greedy Eugénie,” but does not. In short sections of bare dialogue, a voice—her dead mother, or some analogous fragment of her self—asks her why she keeps wasting opportunities to escape. At first she does not answer. Slowly, she gathers strength. When at last she takes her vengeance, it is explosive and, in the telling at least, beautiful. Thus Keene overturns the reigning versions of history in which Americans—I use the term continentally—of African descent are either rendered docile or erased. Even Carmel’s obedience becomes a mode of resisting, of seizing freedoms long denied to her. But there is another sort of liberation at work here, and ironies more complex than turning a too-familiar plot on its head.
Keene’s voice shifts constantly. “Gloss on a History,” for instance, begins as a deceptively conventional third-person narrative broken by occasional spurts of unattributed dialogue before it gives way to journal entries jotted in Carmel’s trilingual shorthand, an excerpt from an official report penned by one of the nuns at the convent, and finally a first-person narration from a by now fully self-conscious Carmel. In other stories, cuttings from newspaper articles—announcements of a murder or the sale or flight of a slave—maps, and outtakes from invented histories disrupt the flow of plot and the unity of its telling. In “A Letter on the Trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon,” a character breaks chronology to quote the very same Audre Lorde lines that Keene uses elsewhere as an epigraph, prefacing them “as my sister will write in the distant future.” In that story, while relating the odd events that overtook a Catholic monastery in a provincial corner of what is now Brazil, the narrator briefly anticipates Foucault: “Is knowledge not always a form of power…?”
It is on that level—within language, and the ways that it forms meanings which then combine into the opacity of social truths—that Keene most delights in subversion. Much of Counternarratives is written in a voice that, with a fluid 19th-century rigor and an almost imperceptible wink, adapts the linguistic conventions of white supremacy. As in: “By the turn of the new century, however, L’Ouverture had sunk those once halcyon days into the sea’s black depths.” Or when he writes of the enlightened slaveholder and “man of feeling” Olivier de L’Écart, who aimed “at some future stage…to resolve” the contradiction that shaped his life and in the meantime considered that equality, in practice, “required severe restraint.” Thus Keene opens up the spaces between words and their objects, to create room where fresh meanings can play. And not just meanings.
In “An Outtake From the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution”—another of Keene’s whimsically cumbrous titles—he follows the adventures of a boy, later a man, named Zion, born in bondage in Roxbury, Massachusetts, into the household of a “wealthy farmer and patriot” named Isaac Wantone, who, it is hinted, may also be his father. (Keene has frequent fun with names—in “Gloss on a History,” the local hellfire preacher is the Rev. Job White of Hurttstown.) Zion proves a moody child. He does not adapt to a life of forced servitude as graciously as his master might wish. He escapes for the first time at 14 and is caught—and whipped, and whipped again, and locked in a stock and sold—three months later. He escapes again, and again, and again. Each time he does, young Zion makes the most of his liberty: He steals, drinks, gambles, brawls. Once grown, he embarks on “a life of debauchery…allegedly fathering several children by white, Indian, and Negro women.”
He is caught, imprisoned, enslaved again and escapes again. Zion’s is a furious freedom, and not always a pretty one. Near Boston, “he committed lascivious acts just across the county line on the person of a sleeping widow” with the not-incidentally suggestive name of Mary Shaftesbone. Again he is captured, and again he escapes and is captured again and sentenced to death, and all the while the colonies are rising up against the British, demanding something called liberty; and on the previous page, where Keene recounts Zion’s public admonition “to all fellow Brothers and Sisters of Africk and otherwise in bondage” that the “only true Liberty lies in holding Free,” he reprints an image of the Declaration of Independence. On the next page, just before Zion is set to hang, he pauses for a quote from David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, to wit that “the prevalence of the doctrine of liberty” may arise from a “false sensation or seeming experience”—in other words, that though we may feel and believe ourselves to be free, our lives are just as likely to be determined by forces external to them as any dead object is. Zion would surely not agree. He escapes once more, on the morning of his execution. The demands of justice are severe, and “another negro, whose particular crimes are not recorded,” is hanged in Zion’s place.
Keene doesn’t say what becomes of his protagonist, and that, I suppose, is the discomfiting and profoundly hopeful point: No matter how locked down the world may seem, something always slips away.