By John Keene


New Directions
May 2016

Reviewed by Phil Sandick


John Keene's Counternarratives, as one might guess from its title, is a delightful departure from conventionally told fiction. Its rebellious spirit holds together its various narratives, which range from novella to flash fiction, from the traditionally to the experimentally told. Keene works with speculative fiction and historical fiction, and includes primary historical texts, using first-hand research, not merely to play in the experimental end of the pool for boldness's sake, but also in order to question our essential assumptions about the purposes of storytelling, of narrative. Counternarratives emphasizes narrative as fundamentally an exploration of freedom, and complicates the old maxim about fiction's purpose to give voice to the unvoiced. Here, any notion of "giving voice" becomes a contested claim. For Keene continually directs our attention toward the question: Can the act of offering glimpses—both documentarian and speculative—into official and unofficial histories ever transcend the echoes of historical events and lived realities?

Counternarratives offers a kaleidoscopic vision of the struggle to be free, in its various manifestations, and in a range of historical periods and situated conflicts. Many of these stories, particularly in the first section that relates tales of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America and South America, feel as if they have been unearthed: yes, they are fiction, but they have the feel of actual memoir told by rescued voices. Keene adopts a stylistically retro narrative voice, often seeming to match voice to time, place, subject, and persona, and the book is replete with maps, newspaper clippings, and fictionalized accounts of real-life artists and performers. This quality may immediately bring the naturalistic U.S.A. trilogy to mind, but where Dos Passos is more concerned with finding the victims of modern life, Counternarratives explores the modernist tradition itself, including Langston Hughes, Mexican poet Xavier Villaurrutia, composer and playwright Bob Cole, and acrobat Miss La La (subject of Degas's painting "Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando") as subjects. Keene even puts fictitious journal entries by W.E.B. Du Bois and George Santayana side by side on the page, another lively reappraisal of the tradition of cultural criticism. Even the author of the aphorism, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," becomes a memory of the past, a trace to a moment in time, place, and circumstance.

The book's second section brings us forward in time and is richly populated by artists and philosophers. Here we find "Rivers," a story in which canonical Americans Tom, Huck, and Jim all meet again years after their journey down the Mississippi. "Aeronauts" concludes with a hot air balloon flight over Civil War encampments that can only be described as "not quite fear, not quite elation." The story of Bob Cole, "Cold," eloquently and achingly describes Cole's suicidal swim. Toward its conclusion, the years move backwards, "1911, 1910, 1909, nobody knows the trouble," and friends call out to him as he is "pantomiming" and "miming" swimming as if in a routine from his iconic A Trip to Coontown. In "Blues," Langston Hughes comes to us through a third-person close narration that uses short poetic bursts, separated by ellipses. In fact, many stories end with ellipses or hyphens, or other notions of cancelled out breaths. Once again, voicing the voiceless in fiction is sometimes not enough. The difficulty in achieving closure resounds.

Like The Last Angel of History, which appeared on one of Keene's recent syllabi for his Northwestern University course on Black Literary Avant-Gardes, Counternarratives questions how we must sift through the past in order to approach the future. Keene, who is a founding member of the Dark Room Collective, is an excellent guide. He allows us to see and experience the feeling of rising from the margins, and the artists and individuals driven to madness and despair.

E. L. Doctorow, whom Keene mentions in the acknowledgements as one of his influential teachers, considered similar questions of how to voice the past in his novel, Ragtime. The great deception of objective history, told in official historian voice, becomes the great elation of postmodern historical fiction that treats historical writing as a questionable performance. As Fredric Jameson wrote of Ragtime: "This historical novel can no longer set out to represent the historical past; it can only 'represent' our ideas and stereotypes about that past (which thereby at once becomes 'pop history')." Keene understands this deeply. What he offers us here is a subversion of the traditional historical novel, one that looks at representation as much as it does the official record. For Keene, in order to accurately represent the past, he must self-consciously add to the rich mythography of popular history. In fact, he sees all of the narratives that surround American-ness and American literature as simply that: narratives. By picking up the story of Huck Finn in the context of the Civil War, for instance, or by granting a tragic vaudevillian one final performance, Keene acknowledges that history itself is not fixed. The postmodern historical novel tends not to hide away from simulacra, and instead remixes and remakes the story. But by including representations of real people, reflecting hours of thorough research, it should be noted that Keene does not let go of the dream of all historical novelists to "get it right." All historical fiction, in some way or another, seeks to capture that ineffable feeling of what it was like to be there. The most direct path to achieving this dream often depends mostly on the author's imagination; here that imagination carries one through an amazing panoply of tales.