Tracing hidden lines across the Americas: Counternarratives by John Keene

Stretching over a span of four centuries, Counternarratives is a collection of stories and novellas that defies simple description or classification. In just over 300 pages, John Keene manages to challenge and reinvent the way we think about historical fiction by subverting the conventional narratives again and again, peering into dark corners, and prying the lid off of stories not typically part of the grand narrative tradition that has dominated so much of contemporary American literature. First off, for Keene, America has a broader scope. This is the New World, primarily the United States and Brazil—the two countries most closely associated with the slave trade—but over the course of this book we also venture into Mexico, the Caribbean and across the ocean. The characters, primarily, though not exclusively, of Black African heritage, are drawn from history, the arts, and the imagination; and demonstrate a strong will to run against the currents of normative discourse within which they would have otherwise fallen under the radar or been rendered invisible. In allowing their lives to flourish on the page, Keene is effectively queering history. Many of his characters are either implicitly or explicitly queer with respect to sexuality or gender, but all of them through their stories, push up against accepted mythologies, inverting or “queering” them in the process.

CounternarrativesThe earliest narratives in this collection tend to keep some distance from the subject at hand, some even have an investigative documentary feel, complete with maps inserted into the text. Over the course of the book, the control of the voice shifts, as characters begin to take command of their own stories (mid-way through the powerful central piece, “Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows” Carmel, the mute protagonist, starts to “speak” through the written word, abbreviated and phonetic at first, then increasingly fluid over time) until eventually, as the accounts draw closer to the present day, internalized, experimental stream of conscience narratives begin to come into play. With any collection of shorter works there is always the risk that the stories will begin to blur at the edges, losing distinction from one to another. Not so in this case. Although the themes and characters are not directly connected, this evolving style of storytelling—from the relatively dry historical reportage of the opening pieces, through more traditional narrative accounts to the disembodied, disturbing dialogue of the closing entry “The Lions”—provides a continuity that serves to create a cohesive work of astonishing depth.

Throughout, Keene demonstrates an enviable capacity to create vivid, memorable characters and breathe life into the vital cross currents of history. He does not allow himself to get bogged down in background detail but allows the time, place, and social dynamics to come to the surface through the wide range of individuals and the varied settings and styles that he allows his narratives, or rather counternarratives, to adopt. And although it may seem strange to speak about these short stories and novellas as if they almost have an agency of their own, that is what it feels like to engage with them. Due to extenuating personal circumstances, my reading of this collection actually extended over the course of three months, but whenever I was forced to put it aside for a time I never feared that I would not return, nor did I find it difficult to lose myself, once again, right where I left off.

counterThroughout this collection, customary beliefs are routinely challenged through the presentation of lives typically discarded or seen through the lens of the dominant power, in a manner that seeks to restore a level of dignity. Black, Native American and queer characters are granted a reprieve from the more conventional historical portrayal. However, that release, or escape if it comes, is often at a cost. Some of the narratives are abruptly truncated, ending partway through a sentence. In most instances a resolution is uncertain regardless of whether it signals promise or pain.

By way of offering a taste of this collection, I’ll touch on three pieces. The epistolary novella “A Letter on the Trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon” offers a report on the experiences of one Dom Joaquim D’Azevedo, sent in 1629, to attend to matters at an isolated monastery in Brazil where some disturbing occurrences had been reported. He arrives at this remote location, populated by two padres, one brother and their bondspeople, or slaves, to find himself facing what will reveal, in time, a veritable heart of darkness. The atmosphere is charged with an unusual energy from the outset, as the newcomer struggles to get his bearings in his new setting and size up his charges:

Resuming his comments about the monastery, Dom Gaspar could see that D’Azevedo was growing unsteady on his feet, and with a gesture summoned a stool, which a tiny man, dark as the soil they stood on, his florid eyes fluttering, brought out with dispatch. They continued on in this manner, Dom Gaspar speaking—Padre Pero very rarely interjecting a thought, Padre Barbarosa Pires mostly nodding or staring, with a gaze so intense it could polish marbles, at D’Azevedo—detailing a few of the House’s particulars: its schedule, its routines, its finances, its properties and holdings, its relationship with the neighboring town and villages, and with the Indians.

Before long, D’Azevedo settles into a rhythm, feels he is making progress and begins to tutor boys from the town. But strange noises and mysterious sightings inside the monastery begin to unsettle him while outside threats from encroaching Dutch forces escalate, creating an atmosphere in which an evil long brewing is brought to the surface. Dark secrets are revealed, D’Azevedo is forced to confront a truth he has long buried, and the identity of the small African servant who seems to be ever present comes to light. This piece is a strong example of evocative storytelling, reminiscent in mood of The Name of the Rose, but reframed within the context of the Catholic Church’s role in the Americas, the clash with tribal African traditions, warring colonial tensions, and questions of ethnic heritage, gender and sexuality.

By way of contrast, “Rivers” turns the tables on a classic of American literature, giving Jim Watson of Huckleberry Finn fame, an opportunity to flesh out the details of his life after the book ended. Jim, now a free man who has reclaimed his own name, James Rivers, is a tavern owner in Missouri when he chances to meet Huck and Tom on the street. Their conversation, is dominated by Tom’s racist jibes, but Jim remains circumspect. He thinks of what he could have told them but chooses not to (“I thought to say…/Instead I said…”), in this way sharing with the reader a full account of the women in his life, his children, his time in Chicago, and his return to his home state, while little is offered to his former acquaintances. There is no joyous reunion, rather the occasion is marked by arrogance on one side, bitterness and suspicion on the other. But as the Civil War looms, another chance meeting awaits.

Beyond this story, the narratives begin to take on an increasingly playful, experimental form in style and content. An especially affecting piece is Cold. Narrated from an internalized second person perspective, this short story takes us inside the troubled mind of Bob Cole, the composer, playwright and producer who co-created, with Billy Johnson, A Trip to Coontown in 1898, the first musical owned entirely by black showmen. It is now 1911, and the voice in his head taunts him, catalogs his losses, his failures, driving his desperate decision to take his life before the day is out. . .

For the last month or two, or five, has it been a year—why can you not remember?—these newest melodies you cannot flush from your head, like a player piano with an endless roll scrolling to infinity. Songs have always come, one by one or in pairs, dozens, you set them down, to paper, to poetry, like when you set the melody of the spiritual Rosamond was whistling as you walked up Broadway and in your head and later on musical paper clothed it in new robes. Then somewhere along the way after the first terrible blues struck you tried to hum a new tune, conjure one, you thought it was just exhaustion, your mind too tired to refresh itself as it always had, that’s why the old ones wouldn’t go away.

The pieces I have briefly touched on just graze the surface of this book. Its relatively short length can be deceiving. Counternarratives offers a demanding, immersive reading experience. It is, at the same time, compulsively engaging and deeply satisfying. I heard reverent talk of it long before I finally picked up my own copy earlier this year and I can fully understand the respect it has garnered even I find myself at a loss to do it justice. Bold and expansive, this is a haunting, unsettling, important work.

Counternarratives by John Keene is published by New Directions in North America and by Fitzcarraldo in the UK.

Haunting fables for a modern world: Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams

She was a writer on my radar, Joy Williams, somehow unknown to me until recently, but then, the world of literature is large and sometimes voices pass us by until fate or chance draws them to our attention. Or, if the rather ambivalent and perplexed Lord who appears in so many of the stories in her latest collection has His way, a little divine intervention is exercised. And so it happened that I found myself in the ER earlier this week, an advance reader’s copy of Ninety-Nine Stories of God on my phone. Between the tests and assessments to rule out any heart problems (my own private post cardiac arrest paranoia I’m afraid), I devoured a healthy measure of these bite-sized fictional treats. The true cause of my symptoms laid me under for a good 36 hours, but I emerged today to finish the collection, slowly only for the sake of savouring these deliciously dark, reflective, engagingly original tales.

99storiesA healthy dose of the unique joy of Joy Williams proved the perfect medicine.

The ninety-nine vignettes and mini stories that comprise this precious volume run the range from the brief and aphoristic to “longer” tales that run for a page or two. A cast of literary, philosophical and other assorted personalities make appearances, as characters or subjects. Williams delights in building fables that feature Kafka, Karl Jung, Simone Weil, or Philip K. Dick among others. At times she reduces her musing to the very simplest of terms, as in this one sentence micro-story which receives its context, as most of the stories do, by the title which is always placed at the end:

You should have changed if you wanted to remain yourself but you were afraid to change.

SARTRE TO CAMUS

The Lord Himself is a regular presence, as one might expect. He tends to appear in the most innocuous situations—He waits in a pharmacy line for His shingles shot, dreams of participating in a demolition derby, and expresses horror at the suggestion that He go to Home Depot to purchase supplies for a tortoise He wishes to adopt. Williams’ God is as curious and confused by His creations, especially those of the human form and He seems to have little control over the fate of His charges.

The Lord was asked if He believed in reincarnation.

I do, He said. It explains so much.

What does it explain, Sir? someone asked.

On your last Fourth of July festivities, I was invited to observe an annual hot-dog-eating contest, the Lord said, and it was the stupidest thing I’ve ever witnessed.

NEGLECT

Bemused and caring, lovingly benign, this is a God one can’t help liking. Good thing too, because the world of the ordinary people (and animals, for that matter) who feature in the majority of these stories is often marked by loss, despair and an odd isolation from others.

In his Numéro Cinq review of The Visiting Privilege, a recent compilation of her first three collections of short stories, Jason DeYoung describes her work as:

Strange and dark, her stories and novels make their foundation in realism, but then you never know quite where they will lead to. Most stay firmly planned in the “manifest world,” while others drift off toward the uncanny.

This description holds fast here too, even in abbreviated form. The humour is black, and a disturbing energy courses just below the surface. Nothing is spelled out beyond the most spare, necessary, imagery. So many stories pivot, or pack their punch, not in the ostensible actions recounted but in the reactions of the characters which are often counterintuitive. There is a suggestion that we cling to our dysfunction, our delusions, possibly as a stand in for faith, leaving the poor Lord Himself an awkward outsider in a world He designed.

The style and format of this collection is most strongly reminiscent of Thomas Bernhard’s The Voice Imitator. Of course, it would be remiss if the great writer did not make an appearance as he does in a story about a woman reading book reviews:

She was reading a broadside that reviewed a number of books. The reviews were extremely intelligent and gracefully presented. She read about a cluster of works by Thomas Bernhard, the cranky genius of Austrian literature, works that had been translated into English. She doubted that she would buy these books. She learned that he always referred to his lifelong companion, Hedwig Stavianicek, as his “aunt”. She was thirty-seven years older than Bernhard. She couldn’t imagine she had been his lifelong companion for long.

Given the condition I’ve been in over the last few days that, through a wicked case of the flu, I reveled in these ninety-nine gems. This story goes on in a way that most wonderfully spoke to my state and made me smile:

She had had a fever for several days and she was loafing around, drinking fluids and reading. With her fever, the act of reading became ever stranger to her. First the words were solid, sternly limiting her perception of them to what she already knew. Then they became more frighteningly expansive, tapping into twisting arteries of memory. Then they became transparent, rendering them invisible.

I can assure you this will not be my last encounter with Joy Williams. I would encourage anyone whose interest has been sparked to check the review I’ve linked above which contains a video of Williams reading an essay entitled “Why I Write.” Ninety-Nine Stories of God will be released in July by Tin House.

Leaving the Atocha Station – The neurotic American poet in Spain

I recently read Ben Lerner’s acclaimed first novel Leaving the Atocha Station. I bought the book in 2012 but had put it aside, uncertain I wanted to spend time with a narrator I expected to be a misanthropic American slacker poet slouching his way through the streets of Madrid. When I happened to catch the replay of a CBC radio interview with the author my interest was rekindled, especially in light of my recent breakdown and the therapeutic comfort I have been finding in poetry.

indexSure enough our narrator Adam Gordon is an ambivalent and emotionally insecure young poet who has chosen to spend a fellowship year in Madrid. Ostensibly his aim is to explore, in verse, the impact of the Civil War on Spanish society although he seems to have precious little direction or inclination of how to begin his project beyond attempting to improve his comfort with the Spanish language. He seems to have a cultured skepticism in the value of art and the validity of the artistic experience which in turn causes him a healthy dose of self loathing. He passes his days smoking hash and cigarettes, while relying on the security of tranquilizers and mood stabilizers. He reads Tolstoy, Cervantes, and John Ashbery. Beyond that he parties and awkwardly attempts to conduct love affairs with two Spanish women.

The resulting novel is a surprisingly humourous and engaging exploration of the struggling artist who refuses to struggle. Adam spends much time trying to make sense of what his new Spanish friends are saying and attempting to compose the facial expressions that he assumes will be appropriate for the circumstances. If in doubt he hides behind the prop of a cigarette. Yet it is not only the dislocation of being in a foreign country that accounts for Adam’s feeling of always being one step out of sync. He also believes himself to have bipolar disorder although it is never entirely clear that this is a confirmed diagnosis or a justification for the little yellow and white pills that he relies on. I’m not certain if Lerner, himself an established poet, is playing with the idea that neurosis is an essential element of the artistic process. Nonetheless Adam embraces it fully, manipulating his medication to ramp up the production of poems for a Spanish translation without any real sense if he is producing anything of worth.

Ultimately he crowns this phase of intense creative production with a grand manic splurge, thanks to his parents’ credit card, to impress one of the women he imagines himself in love with. An insanely expensive dinner and a night at the Ritz Carlton coincides with a tragic early morning blast at the busy Atocha Train Station, the 2004 attack by Islamic militants that killed 191 commuters. The street protests and the involvement of Adam’s wealthy young Spanish friends in the demonstrations and elections that follow this terrorist attack serve to force him to ground himself, even just a little.

The most engaging aspect of this book for me was the continual sense of self consciousness that pervadesAdam’s thoughts, plays with his confidence and keeps him from ever feeling that he is at home in any setting. His anxiety causes him to sabotage his potential relationships (or at least believe he is sabotaging them). He is alternately cocky and absolutely certain everyone else is humouring him. He spends time composing his face, adopting poses and pulling himself together in public settings. If you have never lived with a mood or anxiety disorder such obsessing might seem like poetic license. I found it uncomfortably familiar.

And those little pills Adam keeps reaching for… I have had to rely a lot on those myself lately.