John Keene's Sentences


This short essay about John Keene's story collection Counternarratives was first published at the Emerging Writers Network site in May 2017. That site seems a little buggy these days, so for the sake of archiving the essay, I am copying it here. Counternarratives remains for me the most impressive story collection by an American writer published in the 21st century.




The stories of John Keene provide an aesthetic to push against the power of the cultural forces that venerate quick, easy thinking; forces that reduce knowledge to soundbites and hottakes and quick! mustread! breaking! stories, enforcing a compulsory presentism that is little more than mass amnesia — and self-aggrandizing mass amnesia at that. It’s a prose aesthetic to fight against any impulse insisting life here and life now is the most, the best, the worst, the only. His 2015 collection Counternarratives — easily one of the most invigorating English-language story collections of the last 25 years — offers us a powerful contemporary toolbox of approaches to language and knowledge. I say contemporary because one of the great values of Keene’s prose is that he has studied and emulated the writing not only of writers older than himself, but writers long dead by the time he was born, recognizing what they might, in their very different ways, offer, and then building on the offerings. Such study seems to be rare in current American fiction.


Here, I cannot give a full account of Counternarratives and its many wonders. If you are unfamiliar with the collection, there are plenty of reviews of it out there to offer a glimpse, many of them helpfully collected by Howard Rambsy II at his Cultural Front site (see also Rambsy’s own notes on the book). Keene’s conversation with Michael Silverblatt for KCRW’s Bookworm is also extraordinary, as Silverblatt has read the stories well and leads a thoughtful conversation. My feelings about the book are closest to those of Vincent Czyz, Daniel Green, Max Nelson, and Adrian West. For readers who want to get a taste of Keene’s writing, a few of the stories are online: “Mannahatta” at Triquarterly, “An Outtake From the Ideological Origins of The American Revolution” at Agni, and “River” at Vice.


One of the challenges some of Keene’s stories pose for today’s readers is that in their range of styles and techniques they sometimes eschew the most popular (and thus invisible) techniques of contemporary fiction, most notably the command to show, don’t tell. Some of the stories, particularly in the first section of the book, are filled with exposition of a sort now becoming rare even in nonfiction writing. The effect is important because Counternarratives is a book about many things, not least of which is epistemology. The stories give us lots of information, but they also withhold a lot of information, and we must, then, develop our own theory of knowledge while we read if we are to make any sense of the text in front of us. Different ways of handling information, imagining knowledge, knowing the world, believing or doubting, making meaning from events, impulses, words, silences — all of these clash within the stories, but also within ourselves as readers, and if we are to get through the book, we must develop our own techniques for cohering the texts. In that way, Counternarratives is not only a toolbox for writers, but for readers. Simply put: Wrestle with these stories’ difficulties and you will become a better reader.


Before I point out some of what makes Keene’s sentences wondrous, I can’t resist placing here a few statements he has made about writing, because they show the depth and insight of his thinking about the relationship between aesthetic choices and the world at large.


In an interview with Vice, Keene notes the powerful effect of dominant cultural forces on writers’ forms:


They see what gets praised and what gets championed, and then they think, I have this story I want to tell, and I have all these ways I could tell it, and so what ways will most probably lead me to seeing it in print? We're really sort of socialized to see the world in certain ways. And I think that does affect how people write.


In an interview with Guernica, he says: thing I was thinking about recently is where these contemporary American fiction standards come from, given the variety of US literary fiction up through the 1980s, and I would argue, without any evaluative judgment, that it’s a product of MFA programs. There’s the recent book by Eric Bennett, titled Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing During the Cold War, which suggests that one source of this contemporary style, which emphasizes “craft and style over intellectual content,” as Maggie Doherty put it in her 2015 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, derives from US geopolitical and ideological considerations funded by the CIA. Ominous, I know, but how often does this get discussed in MFA fiction workshops? Another factor is the increasing simplicity, brevity, and casualness of social media, whose aesthetic effects cannot be underestimated. I’d add that, despite political efforts in the past and today, the US has never been a closed society, and the black Atlantic and African diaspora is anything but limited to one particular national, inward-looking perspective, so these stories mirror those larger historical and cultural realities.


I can’t help but see a bit of Keene’s own writing in these words from his introduction to the English translation of Hilda Hilst’s novel The Obscene Madame D:


I would argue...that Hilst’s novel, or anti-novel, which requires the reader to enact Hillé’s narrative process of de- and re-construction, represents a Foucauldian ethics in fictional form, of becoming and un-becoming, of instability and destabilization; it is an ethics of the mutability of process, true in many ways, despite its exaggeration, to life itself, and thus suggests an aesthetics which, once assimilated, orients the reader quite effectively. … To put it another way, The Obscene Madame D’s experimental form, its defamiliarizing prose, its continuous polyvocality, and its insistent philosophizing offer a way of reading and entering a work whose central principle is un-making as a path to self-making...


Finally, in an interview with Front Porch Journal, he says:


For me the question is, what techniques and forms are appropriate to these works of art, rather than what is au courant today? Also, in light of a great deal of aesthetically narrowed fictional practice, especially in terms of the contemporary, conventional American short story, might not the varied approaches in Counternarratives be especially salient and open up possibilities for others?


The sorts of possibilities Keene’s work opens up are many — not only in the range of his sentences, but also at the level of story structure, point of view, and narrative form generally. Bevies of Bakhtinians and narratologists of various sorts have shown that fiction is a shapeshifter and an amalgamator, able to absorb any other form into itself. Keene takes advantage of this quality, giving us stories made from historical narratives, diaries, newspaper accounts, letters, philosophical treatises, footnotes, dialogues, recitations, streams of consciousness, and more. Shapeshifting and amalgamating become important processes both within the stories and in their relationship to dominant powers — the dominant powers of both text and world.


One of the richest and most delightful stories in Counternarratives is “The Aeronauts”, the tale of a young black man, Theodore King, who in 1851 leaves a precarious life in Philadelphia to work with the scientists and engineers of the U.S. Army Balloon Corps. After having been invited to join the Corps, he makes his way to Washington and discovers it is not a well-known or well-respected element of the U.S. Army, and simply locating its base of operations proves challenging. But Theodore perseveres, and when he arrives, we read this paragraph:


“Professor Linde,” the white man with Nimrod said, “this boy has showed up saying he’s in your employ,” yet Mr. Linde continued his work on the metal device, twisting and arranging the wires. The white man did not repeat himself but walked away, while Nimrod and I hovered there, until Mr. Linde finally raised his eyes, squinting first at Nimrod then at me, his face initially a portrait of bafflement, and I opened the letter to hand to him and prepared once again to recount everything when he stood, gathering up a ruler, notebook and pencil, which he passed to me, his expression suggesting that I had just accidentally dropped them there to undertake some other minor task, and said, “Ah, Theodore, there you are.”


This is not an especially remarkable passage (in a book filled with remarkable passages), but it is a useful place to begin, because the second sentence in that paragraph so beautifully elongates the time in this one moment, bringing to the reader the sort of suspense that Theodore himself would have been feeling: What kind of response will he receive now that he has finally arrived? Theodore’s journey to this place takes up the majority of the story — just over 40 of its 58 pages — and the long second sentence provides both a feeling of deferral and release, heightening the tension and then allowing relief of all the uncertainty the story accumulates up to that point.


The effect is more pronounced at the end of the book’s first story,  “Mannahatta”:


He pushed off from the shore, out into the river, and as he glanced at the cross, it appeared to flare, momentarily, before it disappeared like everything else around it into the island’s dense verdant hide. It was, despite his observations of the area, the one thing that he recalled so clearly he could have described it down to the grain of the wood when he slid into his hammock that night, and, when he returned a week later, his canoe and a skiff laden with ampler sacks, of flints, candles, seeds, a musket, his sword, a small tarp to protect him from the rain, enough hatchets and knives to ensure his work as trader, and translator, never to return to the Jonge Tobias, or any other ship, nor to the narrow alleys of Amsterdam or his native Hispaniola, the very first thing he saw.


Here, again, deferral: “It was […] the very first thing he saw.” Because of it’s structure, this is not a sentence most readers will absorb fully on one reading. It is a sentence that explodes from the inside, its substance packed in between subject, verb, and object, and as such it enacts many of the ideas of this book — for instance, that the detail and complexity of experience is lost by some ways of telling stories and using language and constructing histories. What Keene is up to in this sentence, and in much of the book generally, parallels some of what Chinua Achebe achieved with Things Fall Apart, reflected in the painful, ironic final sentences of the novel (“One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate. There was so much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out details. He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger”).


“Rivers” begins with a long, one-sentence paragraph, one in which deferral is also an element, but not as central; instead, the sentence’s curves and flows are riverine:


What I'd like to hear about, the reporter starts in, is the time you and that little boy... and I silence him again with a turn of my head, thinking to myself that this is supposed to be an interview about the war and my service in it, from the day I enlisted despite being almost a score years too old, having several mouths to feed, and running a tavern under my own name a grasshopper's jump from the riverfront, to the day we were sent by wagon and train down to Brazos de Santiago, where we launched the fight that ended on that spring day, ten years ago, along the Rio Grande on the meadows of Palmito Ranch, which, we learned later from a scout we captured from the other side, was the final battle in the first great war for our freedom, or between the states as they like to call it these days, so I ain't about to devote a minute to those sense-defying events of 40 years before.


We start with the reporter’s question (almost a command), which gets interrupted, as now Jim takes over his own narrative. One of the masterful moves of the story is to show both what is said and unsaid, and once the tale gets going, we, the readers, will become a privileged audience that knows both the complex story of Jim’s life and the very little he tells of it to Tom and Huck. This structure gets glanced in the first sentence (“thinking to myself...”), where already there is more information than Jim’s famous fellow characters will ever get from him. The sentence contains a summary of much that we will learn more about later, and so it is a kind of story within the story, or rather a first attempt, a vertiginous précis that gestures toward the richness of this human life — a richness excluded from the novel by Twain, whose riches are otherwise, because Twain, like the reporter, was interested in another story, and couldn’t imagine how to let Jim tell his own.


Counternarratives is a book of tours de force, and the tour de force of tours de force is “Gloss on a History of Roman Catholics in the Early American Republic, 1790-1825; or The Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows” (if a more impressive novella has been published by an American writer since the death of Guy Davenport, I do not know of it). I fear talking at all about this story, not only because I am in awe of its vertiginous power, but because once you start discussing the details, allusions, and resonances, where will you stop, and I have written to much already… Thus, I will not discuss the breadth of histories the story explores; nor the genres it strips, melds, and vivifies; nor the voices that sing through its pages; nor the ways the master prestidigitator Keene wields tense and point of view; nor the sublimity of its conclusion — no, I will simply give you one more sentence, a sentence from “A Gloss”, in which a character who, over the course of fifty pages, has worked her way toward ennuncation now takes stock of her words:


Though I still read just before going to sleep and maintained my journal, my entries now tending towards a brevity so extreme that sometimes only a word or two, at most a sentence, resonant for my memory and me alone, would suffice, and I filled whatever space remained with minute line drawings of my fellow bondswomen, of the animals, of the grounds; and with caricatures of the nuns, the white girls, and the glimpses I had gotten of the townspeople and of the convent’s visitors, including the Reverend White’s son Job Jr., whom the nuns had contracted to repair damage caused by the rainstorm, to the front portico and to re-wash, in white, limed paint, the entire façade, I seldom undertook the more elaborate drawings that had been my regular practice since arriving with Eugénie, though from time to time I would extract the journals in which I’d drafted them, documents I kept carefully hidden in a storage space underneath the head of my cot, which I had dug out over a period of months and re-covered with a large paving stone, to review them, usually with a bit of bemusement at the queer constellation of imagery and signification that I had developed – what on earth or in the heavens had I been thinking? – and with admiration that, despite all the constraints I had faced, from lack of materials to disapproval to potential punishment, I had produced so much and, I was not unashamed to say, of such high quality.


The stories we tell, and the stories we desire, hide the stories that we do not tell, do not desire, or do not even know how to desire until we learn to imagine that other tales might be told, other characters given voice, other language spoken, other sentences written.


These are sentences — and stories — to cherish and to learn from.

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