Good 'ol Askold Melnyczuk had brought John Keene to UMass Boston and it was a pretty dang cool visit. He presented a version of this essay (if my memory serves), and I thought it was really cool and exciting to meet a) a St. Louis writer and b) one so interested in pushing the avant-garde. In preparation, we read Annotations, which is really marvelous — compressed, allusive, tight, provoking — and Counternarratives, which was relatively hot-off-the-presses at the time.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I didn’t finish Counternarratives when I was supposed to. I read a fair bit of it, but not all of it. I can’t remember exactly where I’d gotten stuck; there are some marks in the Table of Contents but I don’t trust those; and I don’t remember exactly what else was going on at that time, save that that was the semester I worked the most hours at the bike shop, that was (one of the many) semester(s) I was too in my feelings about figuring out my own work, and that semester, too, I think, was at the tail end of some disappointing circumstances in the department. Oh well.
The point is that I didn’t then give it its due, but I’ve had occasion to finally read the book end-to-end, I recommend it, and I thought I’d share some brief thoughts.
Counternarratives is a book of "stories and novellas," and spans huge distances both temporally and geographically, stylistically and linguistically. There is a more or less chronological progression through the book towards (near?) the present day, and the book moves from "Counternarratives" to "Encounternarratives" and finally one more "Counternarrative." Oh, and these sections, I should say, all have a few epigraphs. Keene is damn fucking good at picking epigraphs.
I really enjoyed the majority of the first few pieces in the collection. They all do something different, and the progression overall (here I am losing some of my planned organization) in terms of conceit proceeds well and in interesting ways through the pieces. Standouts (for me) include "Mannahatta," which I think is so lovely about the environment and space; the counternarrative — or the complication of a narrative — of "An outtake from the…"; I really did love "A Letter on the Trials…" for a lot of reasons, in part for the unfolding mystery, in part for the turn(s) and twist(s), as well as it’s politics; and finally, "Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows' I think was masterful, wonderful, cinematic and psychological and just plain old fun. That was, I think, the one that I most could not put down.
Frankly, though interesting and good, "The Aeronauts" was a little slow for me. "Rivers" got me, as it’s a really interesting postscript and commentary on the Huck Finn story (which is sort of inescapable). "Persons and Places" was cool stylistically, in terms of its conceit (which I need to think a little more about before saying anything smart; and this is the story I’ve probably read the most!). "Cold" was brilliant, and the style of "Blues" was interesting and good and the story itself just kind of fun — also I should mention that Keene writes about sex well, I’m inclined to think.
I am still not sure what to do about "The Lions." I really enjoyed its intensity. I found its form fascinating and appropriate and useful. I think I am missing (some) context, but I feel that way always when I read Keene: he’s too smart and too well read for the likes of me (I cannot even wrap my head around historical fiction, much less in so high a literary style). In any case, it’s a masterclass in a means of moving from one consciousness to another, and its political implication(s) are interesting, too, and frankly I am still digesting.
Anyway, go read the book.
Small comment: the above is not what I had wanted it to be but I didn’t sleep so well and it has also been a long time (it seems) since I’ve written this sort of thing. I also probably would have made notes during my reading next time. In any case, this is a part of practice and a part of getting back into reading and writing in a certain kind of way and —