Most readers of fiction hold to the minimal creed of having fun, and mainly in silence; whispering alone, as if praying. By contrast, current academic fashions in narrative analysis are bound to resist illusion, irony, magic, and other aesthetic (and anesthetic) literary properties. Instead of being read either as resisting or collaborating entities in dealing with different forms of oppression, texts of the literary sort—even those written as testimonio—are now typically X-rayed to spot their oppositional weaknesses, literary birthmarks, and signs of addiction to aesthetic pleasures most often held in suspicion.

This is not the case with the book under review. Taking his cue from one of Borges’ several apologies (“La supersticiosa ética del lector”) for the task of reading as a radically private act of cultural translation, Johnny Payne offers his own readings of “boom and postboom’’ authors from Argentina and Uruguay, centered on the themes and realities of authoritarianism and dictatorship. Particularly in his absorbing discussion of Nelson Marra’s “El guardaespaldas” (“The Bodyguard”), Payne holds the reader’s attention by shifting gears from analysis to cultural context. The comparative scope of his readings widens from the opening juxtaposition of Marra’s fiction with Donald Barthelme’s to the middle chapters’ countrapuntal treatment of Teresa Porzecanski (Uruguay) and Harry Mathews (United States/ Paris), Ricardo Piglia and Manuel Puig (Argentina), and John Barth (United States), to a concluding mini-orgy of intertextual suggestions in the last chapter, which is devoted to Luisa Valenzuela (Argentina), Kathy Acker (United States), and the dean of U. S. imperial paranoia, William Burroughs. (Payne’s discussion of Burroughs’ picture of Tangier as the unalloyed “international zone” of “pure” capitalism [pp. 244ff.] may be reconsidered next to Burroughs’ current role in a Nike MTV commercial.)

Except for the idealist characters so often punished by their own self-made reader’s fate in Borges’ stories, other common readers may find it easier and less risky to travel the word’s infinite body than to dwell on any of the world’s troubled surfaces. Perhaps this is why, nowadays, such transworldly analytic entities as Fred Jameson’s “geopolitical aesthetic” have moved beyond literature(s) and nation(s) while speaking mainly in the idiom of film and the jargon of capital flows and global zones of exploitation. For his part, Payne offers readings that seem to gaze backward, Orpheuslike, toward a receding, traditional, reader-coupled view of literature’s many provinces of pain and joy.