John Keene is a genius

Congratulations to John Keene, 2018 MacArthur Fellow! Our only front list writer whose manuscript was acquired from the slush pile, John Keene is something of a legend at New Directions. We proudly published his novella Annotations in 1995 —”a tour de force of intelligence, wordsmithing, and passion” (Kirkus)— and eagerly awaited his next book. Twenty years later, we published Counternarratives—”exquisite, and unlike anything I’ve ever read” (Eula Biss); “eternal, universal, and mystical” (Vanity Fair)— a masterful collection of stories and novellas. Julian Lucas wrote in The New York Times: “Counternarratives is that rare book of short fiction with an epic intuition of time, accomplishing in a handful of inspired, intimate portraits what many sagas only manage in reams.” John Keene is a rare person, an incredible writer and dear friend, and we are so happy he is now officially a genius. We are all cheering! See the full list of MacArthur Fellows in The New York Times.

Read a short story from Counternarratives about a day in the life of one of John’s Modernist heroes, Mário de Andrade.


ANTHROPOPHAGY

“The poet sleeps without the need to dream.“—Mário de Andrade

Every day the quickening passage of the years manifests it- self around him, in him. The morning light burning its entry through the shutters, too bright to bear except in blinks, winks, the armor of fished-out-of-pocket spectacles. The endless clangor and perfume of the streets outside the windows, once a comfort, now a menace, requiring a miracle to survive another Carnaval. The heat, as if every oven, stove and kiln in Rio were firing, glazing him and all but the hardiest to half their size. The sheet music’s notes, like the news- print’s accounts of the unfolding and distant world war, the dictator and Depression closer to home, all sliding inexorably away from his fingers and eyes. His knees, back, the ankles that rattle with each hike up a stairwell, each trek across the University of the Federal District’s grounds. The liver’s complaints after another glass of beer or cachaça, another snort of cocaine. All those words that gushed like water from a fountain, that now have to be hunted with an unsteady hand and head. The heart’s berimbau quivering in irregular time, a rhythm only the reaper can and will discern if allowed. Except in those moments when the hours fall away, disappear, he lying on his side, in dreams or awake and a record cycles on the player, Debussy, Villa-Lobos, Pixin- guinha, or a disc grooved from the recordings of catimbó from his journeys across the northeast, its sonorities drumming out a bridge between the present and the past; and behind him, beside him the one who—unlike the glittering young men in his circle of friends, the well-bred law students and witty budding writers who claim to celebrate him, the young, poor blond athlete from Porto Alegre he met in the stall on rua Conde de Lage seeking a sinecure, through his, the distinguished writer’s, intervention, at the Ministry of Cul- ture, the beautiful and not so beautiful sycophants who say they have read his Macunaíma and studies and poetry and the ones who have managed to mis-memorize a few lines—like this one, known only by his first name, gained in the passageway between the Budapesto’s dining room and its kitchen, by his braided locks and his careful gait, trained through climbing the hillside shanties ringing the city, by his dark arms embracing, knotting around the writer’s chest, their fin- gers interlacing, locking as he enters, moves, dances inside him, the beat mutual and infinite in its tenderness and knowingness; or later, the day after, crouching over his desk, having just finished breakfast downstairs once the cup of cafezinho and the bowl of half-eaten pa- paya, the glass of freshly squeezed orange juice have been cleared, the letters to Anita and Murilo and Henrique and Manuel written, the reviews for his column, and he begins the strophe,

“Heroic anxiety of my feelings
to awaken the secret of beings and things.”

or

“They are forms … Forms that burn, individual
forms, jostling, a jingling of elusive forms
that barely open, flower, that close, flower, flower, unformed

inaccessible, In the night. Everything is night… . ”

and who need regard the message of the clock’s hands, acknowl- edge the calendar’s insistent story? Then, he rests the pen beside the typewriter and blotter and rises, puts on his straw hat to shield his rice-powered face and bald pate, bows the canary tie around his neck, and dives out into the afternoon, walking toward the compet-

~ 274 ~

“They are forms … Forms that burn, individual
forms, jostling, a jingling of elusive forms
that barely open, flower, that close, flower, flower, unformed

inaccessible, In the night. Everything is night… . ”

ing planes of gold sand and the Atlantic’s silvery waves, the lines blur- ring like a freshly painted watercolor. The Cariocas, beachcombers, bathers, the steady stream of vacationers from the nearby hotels pass him, on their way to the huts, umbrellas, the beckoning water. He is here, in Lapa, on the rua Russell, peering at the roofs of Niterói, and there, on the dais in the Municipal Theater in São Paulo, Oswald, Di Cavalcanti, the other radicals at either side of him at the podium, our Pierrot, our Miss São Paulo, our brown-skinned, bucktoothed hero with such character, beginning the excerpt from The Hallucinated City, to hoots and catcalls, while thinking to himself, then as now, we must never let the lies and the tears devour us, we must devour and savor the years.