John Keene

Published 6 April 2016, French paperback with flaps, 400 pages
Winner of the 2017 Republic of Consciousness Prize

Read preview

Ranging from the seventeenth century to our current moment, and crossing multiple continents, Counternarratives’ stories and novellas draw upon memoirs, newspaper accounts, detective stories, interrogation transcripts, and speculative fiction to create new and strange perspectives on our past and present. ‘An Outtake’ chronicles an escaped slave’s take on liberty and the American Revolution; ‘The Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows’ presents a bizarre series of events that unfold in a nineteenth-century Kentucky convent; ‘The Aeronauts’ soars between bustling Philadelphia, still-rustic Washington, and the theatre of the US Civil War; ‘Rivers’ presents a free Jim meeting up decades later with his former raftmate Huckleberry Finn; and in ‘Acrobatique’, the subject of a famous Edgar Degas painting talks back.

‘We have become accustomed in recent years to the revisionary spirit of much postcolonial fiction, but the ambition, erudition and epic sweep of John Keene’s remarkable new collection of stories, travelling from the beginnings of modernity to modernism, place it in a class of its own.’
— Kate Webb, TLS 

‘[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.’
Julian Lucas, New York Times

‘Keene’s collection of short and longer historical fictions are formally varied, mould-breaking, and deeply political. He’s a radical artist working in the most conservative genres, and any search for innovation in this year’s US fiction should start here.’
— Christian Lorentzen, Vulture 

‘Exquisite, and unlike anything I’ve ever read.’
— Eula Biss, author of On Immunity

‘Genius – brilliant, polished and of considerable depth.’
— Ishmael Reed, author of Mumbo Jumbo

Counternarratives is an extraordinary work of literature. John Keene is a dense, intricate, and magnificent writer.’
— Christine Smallwood, Harper’s

‘A book of such richness that it’s hard to know where to begin. Keene fights, and does so with grace, an agile and often vicious wit, and a stubborn, cracking beauty.’
— Ben Ehrenreich, The Nation

Counternarratives is a slyly subversive and politically engaged collection in which the final piece could stand as emblematic of the whole: ‘The Lions’ is a powerful, no-holds-barred examination of the face of despotism; a dialogue in which truth is spoken to power and power has no hesitation in speaking right back.’
New Internationalist

‘This extraordinary book is … unified by the conceit invoked in its title: its stories all counter, challenge, or subvert established narratives about race and slavery in the history of the Americas. Together their effect is to disrupt and disorient our settled notions about the agency of the enslaved and exploited, and about the intelligibility of history itself.’
— Daniel Green, Kenyon Review

‘Keene’s polyvocal narratives masquerade as “primary-source documents” and present convincing first person testimony, while at the same time establishing undercurrents that undermine the victors’ tales – and any hope that we will ever fully settle on the truth.’
— Lucy Ives, New Yorker

‘[P]ostmodernism with blood in its veins. This is no average work of historical fiction, full of bogus dialogue; rather, it’s a set of complex and unpredictable tales about slavery and racism.’
— Anthony Cummins, Telegraph

‘Richly conceived and brilliantly executed: a masterpiece.’
— Jonathan Sturgeon, Flavorwire

‘John Keene’s Counternarratives is a story collection quite unlike anything I have read before.… it layers the reader in historical detail and geographical reference, establishing a firm and distinct sense of place through concrete realism and vivid imagery.’ 
John Oxnard, Structo Magazine

‘In Counternarratives, John Keene undertakes a kind of literary counterarchaeology, a series of fictions that challenge our notion of what constitutes “real” or “accurate” history. His writing is at turns playful and erudite, lyric and coldly diagnostic, but always completely absorbing. Counternarratives could easily be compared to Borges or Bolaño, Calvino or Kiš.’
— Jess Row, author of Your Face in Mine

‘Encompassing hundreds of fictional and historical characters over several centuries, and utilizing a mesmerizing array of styles – including slave narrative, historical document, stream of consciousness, fever dream, diary, field manual, concrete poetry – the book amasses a vision of epic capacity. In magic-like language,  explores the experiences of rebel slaves and slave women, Langston Hughes and Huck Finn.’
— Blake Butler, VICE

John R. Keene was born in St. Louis in 1965. He graduated from the St. Louis Priory School, Harvard College, and New York University, where he was a New York Times Fellow. In 1989, Mr. Keene joined the Dark Room Writers Collective, and is a Graduate Fellow of the Cave Canem Writers Workshops. He is the author of Annotations, and Counternarratives, both published by New Directions, as well as several other works, including the poetry collection Seismosis, with artist Christopher Stackhouse, and a translation of Brazilian author Hilda Hilst’s novel Letters from a Seducer. He teaches at Rutgers University-Newark.