2016 fiction finalist

John Keene | Counternarratives

John KeeneAbout the author
John Keene is a former member of the Dark Room Writers Collective, a graduate fellow of Cave Canem, and the recipient of many awards and fellowships, including a Whiting Foundation Prize for poetry and fiction. Keene teaches at Rutgers-Newark.

About the book
Ranging from the 17th century to the present and crossing multiple continents, Counternarratives’ novellas and stories draw upon memoirs, newspaper accounts, detective stories, interrogation transcripts, and speculative fiction to create new and strange perspectives on our past and present. In “Rivers,” a free Jim meets up decades later with his former raftmate Huckleberry Finn; “An Outtake” chronicles an escaped slave’s fate in the American Revolution; “On Brazil, or Dénouement” burrows deep into slavery and sorcery in early colonial South America; and in “Blues” the great poets Langston Hughes and Xavier Villaurrutia meet in Depression-era New York and share more than secrets.

Critics / Reviews
“Keene exerts superb control over his stories, costuming them in the style of Jorge Luis Borges…Yet he preserves the undercurrent of excitement and pathos that accompanies his characters' persecution and their groping toward freedom.”  — Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal

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

“Suspenseful, thought provoking, mystical, and haunting. Keene's confident writing doesn't aim for easy description or evaluation; it approaches (and defies) literature on its own terms.”  — Publishers Weekly

“Only a few, John Keene among them, in our age, authentically test the physics of fiction as both provocation and mastery. Continuing what reads like the story collection as freedom project, in Counternarratives, Keene opens swaths of history for readers to more than imagine but to manifest and live in the passionate language of conjure and ritual.”  — Major Jackson

“Keene finds inspiration in newspaper clippings, memoirs, and history, and anchors them in the eternal, universal, and mystical.”  — Vanity Fair

“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 Bolano, Calvino or Kiš, but at the same time it is a deeply American, resolutely contemporary book, that asks us to reconsider our own perspectives on the past―and the future.”  — Jess Row

“Of the scope of William T. Vollmann or Samuel R. Delany, but with a kaleidoscopic intuition all its own, Counternarratives is very easily one of the most vividly imagined and vitally timed books of the year. I haven't felt so refreshed in quite a while as a reader.”  — VICE

“Keene opens up the spaces between words and their objects, to create room where fresh meanings can play.”  — Ben Ehrenreich, The Nation

“Queering the script, defying the imperative to be silent, however, does not require confidence or a vision of what progress means. It is, rather, in all its uncertainty and risk, the most basic stuff of―the very matter of―life. It is also the crowning achievement of one of the year’s very best books.”  — Brad Johnson, The Quarterly Conversation

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

Counternarratives proffers a series of stories in which religion and spirituality, art and language, violence and subjugation, homosexuality and eroticism, may shine through a panoply of voices.”  — Patrick Disselhorst, Full Stop

“Practically every sentence in the book perforates, stretches out, or pries open literary modes designed to be airtight, restrictive, and racially exclusionary…An expert generator of suspense, Keene also turns out to be a skilled humorist, a mischievous ironist, a deft, seductive storyteller and a studied historian.”  — Max Nelson, Bookforum