Counternarratives by John Keene

John Keene has created a wonderful eclectic collection of short stories. No two story is the same, all playing with different styles and voices. There are stories presented as historical records, and as dialogues. It’s a very poetic book. At times the prose barely holds together, collapsing beautifully into a stream of phrases and ellipses.

Most stories connect back to something else, often something tangible and real — a piece of history, a historical figure that’s recognizable, or just a time period. One of my favorite stories is about Jim, from Huck Finn, catching up on his story after the Civil War.

The experiemental style and the historical grounding work excellently together. There is always something familiar to hold onto. Some of the more mystical tales are told in the most straightforward style. Keene masterfully mimics the voice of old primary sources, creating the illusion of history and authenticity.

The book is called Counternarratives for a reason — Keene is telling stories that work against what’s usually told. Different stories deal with race, colonialism, sexuality, and gender in different ways. It’s all interesting, and all feels fresh. It’s a very 2015 book, and I mean that in the best way. While it’s historical fiction it feels new, both in terms of the ideas presented and prose style.

Highly recommended. I can’t wait to return to these stories again after some reflection. There’s a lot there to dig into.


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