The stories in this collection use daring, sometimes-fragmented structures to examine bleak moments in American history—and help trace the effects of those moments to the present day.
Keene divides his book into three sections, “Counternarratives,” “Encounternarratives,” and “Counternarrative”; the 13 stories range in length and style, from the brief and pastoral to the sprawling and collagelike, but they share two overarching concerns: a willingness to experiment with language and a tactile sense of history. The longest is “Gloss on a History of Roman Catholics in the Early American Republic, 1790-1825; Or The Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows”—several of the stories have titles that suggest academia—which begins in a fairly dry, historical vein. Over the course of the novella, however, the narrative becomes fractured, shifting from third person to first person and back and incorporating dialogue and found documents. It’s dizzying at times, but the story's handling of religious life and the era’s horrific racism becomes fuller as a result. “The Aeronauts,” which begins in 1861, is more straightforwardly told but finds a similar tension between its protagonist's scientific pursuits and hot air ballooning and the societal strife that surrounds him. Over the course of the book, the stories slowly advance toward the present day, and Keene uses different techniques throughout. At one point, in “Cold,” a character is told, “you have four or five different polyrhythms running concurrently, no man can play this.” It reads like a metafictional nod to Keene’s own experimental tendencies.
These stories can be challenging, but at their best, they can be revelatory, and they sometimes end on haunting notes.