cover image Counternarratives


John Keene. New Directions, $24.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2434-5

In his latest, Keene (Annotations) offers a collection of complex, genre-defying stories, focusing primarily on the range and variety of the black experience. Unrolling chronologically across three sections%E2%80%94the first set in earlier eras, such as 17th-century Brazil and revolutionary America; the second set mostly in mid-19th- to early-20th-century America; and the third in modern-day Africa%E2%80%94these stories interrogate the meanings of identity, agency, duty, and freedom within each period. Keene not only references an impressive range of facts, but also subverts them. Some stories draw on the counternarrative tradition in magical realism, as when slaves use magical powers to attain freedom in "A Letter on the Trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon" and in the particularly unforgettable revenge fantasy "Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows." Other stories disrupt form as well as content, as in the experimental "Persons and Places," in which Du Bois and Santayana narrate side by side, and in "Cold," which intersperses Bob Cole's final breakdown with Cole's own lyrics. At their best, the stories are 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. [em](May) [/em]