John Keene’s Counternarratives is a story collection quite unlike anything I have read before. It spans centuries and explores both American continents. At first the prose seems overly dense—initially I had to wade through quite astonishing levels of detail to uncover what I consider the most important part of fiction: human empathy and the characters it is manifested in—but in the end it succeeds because it layers the reader in historical detail and geographical reference, establishing a firm and distinct sense of place through concrete realism and vivid imagery. Writing about the book for The Barnes & Noble Review, Christopher Byrd put it well when he said that “you first need to learn the broad outlines of the project before you can begin to appreciate its particulars”.
The first section of Counternarratives bounces throughout the Americas. It encompasses discovery (Mannahatta, the opening story of the collection, is a short tale of stumbling upon a new shore, and a fitting metaphor for the reader to begin this literary journey across thousands of miles and hundreds of years), the struggle for freedom (An Outtake From The Ideological Origins Of The American Revolution introduces us to Zion, a slave born in Massachusetts with no desire to stay there), and a test of faith (encountered by Joaquim D’Azevado during his time at Alagoas in A Letter Of The Trials On The Counterreformation In New Lisbon). The stories are told in the third person, which creates a consistent sense of narrative, but the time-spanning nature of Keene’s writing in this opening third of the book often serves to remove the reader from the individual moments: we become observers from an omniscient distance rather than an intimate perspective.
This changes in the final pages of Gloss, Or The Strange History Of Our Lady Of The Sorrows, where the story of Carmel transitions into a first person narrative. Gloss spans seventy-four pages, telling us of Carmel’s quiet life as a slave, and plays host to some of the strongest passages of writing from the collection, most notably the final two pages of the story. The shift to first person towards the end of Gloss focuses us, finally, on a character, and this gives so much life to the ending of Section I.
Keene continues this first person approach as we begin Section II with The Aeronauts, a story which follows Theodore, a young African American working in a research branch of the military during the Civil War in 1861. The descriptions are noticeably less dense, as we view them through a character’s eyes rather than a narrator’s. Theodore shares his own opinions with the reader, communicating his internal conflicts of sexuality and masculinity, as well as an awareness of daily racial tensions. This shift to the subjective narrative continues throughout the middle third of the book, giving the reader a valuable and rich insight into an often ignored voice.
By the halfway mark, it becomes apparent that Counternarratives is attempting to engage us with a struggle for black identity; almost every single story involves the efforts of black characters to make their way in the world despite all that stands before them. While the feelings of dislocation and alienation ripple throughout the collection, and while these may be interpreted by each and every reader uniquely, Keene’s collection seems determined to show us a certain type of struggle: that of minorities’ marginalised identities. Keene’s detailed understanding of time and place, and the personas he employs, aids in uniting historical fact with human empathy in a way which I feel can only be done through fiction.
Author: John Keene
Publication Date: 6 April 2016
Published by: Fitzcarraldo Editions
John Oxnard is based in Cheltenham, and studied Creative Writing at the University of Gloucestershire. He usually dabbles with magic realism when he has the itch to write and has had short stories published in the Compass: New Writing IV and Reflections: New Writing 5 anthologies.