The pieces in this book, which is comprised stories and novellas, are really just exquisite. One of the most apparent things about Counternarratives is that John Keene writes in a really lush, twisty register that runs counter to the very minimalist spareness that’s in style right now. I’d say that one of the reasons that spareness is currently au courant is because it’s far easier to master—and easier to teach in an MFA course—than the one Keene has chosen for these works. This is not a voice for beginners or dabblers, but, that said, Keene knows exactly how execute this sort of writing.
The pieces in Counternarratives were written over the course of years, and many have been published independently in various journals, but they all fit together so perfectly that they must have been written with some idea that they would one day form a larger whole. I think this sense of continuity is exactly what my friend Brad Johnson, bookseller extraordinaire at Diesel, a Bookstore, means every time he calls this book an “American Seiobo.” Each piece in Counternarratives has an independent life, but it’s also part of a larger project that’s moving forward through time and existing at various points of the New World, and inside of a wealth of different minds.
I would also suggest William T. Vollmann’s historical fictions of the Americas as a reference point for Counternarratives, for that’s exactly what this book is: fictions that begin with the colonization of Brazil and continue right up through the early 20th century, ending with a Beckettian alternate past/future. What’s truly astonishing is how Keene masters the voice of each era, not only finding the correct words and sentence structures but also being aware of the manners and preoccupations and methods of conveying information that would pertain to numerous different classes of individual writing in different forms at many different points in history. If a masterful novel is content to give you maybe 3 or 4 lifelike, idiosyncratic voices (at the most), Counternarratives gives you about 15, and they are all genuine, independently existing human beings, not mere pastiches or cheap impersonations.
And as the title suggests, these voices are the ones that have not been collected in the historical record. In effect, Keene is creating documents that fit into spaces where these voices might have existed, had they had the chance (and the education) to leave a written record of themselves. And this too is part of Counternarratives’ canvas: depicting these struggles to have a historical voice and to leave a mark. In fact, that very well may be the great theme running through this great book: the struggle to have a voice and to leave one’s mark on the world. It is a most human struggle that goes on today.