ANNOTATIONS is a highly experimental evocation of childhood and the challengers and difficulties of growing up black and gay in contemporary America. Part novel, part autobiography, and part prose poem, the book explores the dilemma of identity for a protagonist who constantly feels himself to be raw clay molded in someone else’s hands—parents, teachers, friends, and faceless expectations of society itself.
The book’s title and closing line—“And so, patient reader, these remarks should be duly noted as a series of mere life-notes aspiring to the condition of annotations”—give a provocative clue to the novel’s structure. A clean, linear narrative would suggest a shape and interpretation of life that the work implicitly argues against throughout. Instead, these are the notes that describe and illuminate but in no way limit or circumscribe a life.
The narrative is presented roughly chronologically, thus the reader follows the protagonist through childhood, school, adolescence, and finally college. The linguistic structure is far more complex and impressionistic, however, as chapters alternate between a definite narrative line but also clipped, imagistic associations. Keene attempts to blend social and private experience with the larger forces of history to suggest not only a personal view but a panoramic scope.
The unnamed protagonist is a figure haunted by feelings of shame and embarrassment by virtue of ethnicity and sexual preference. He struggles to fit in with peers and families but is most drawn to bookish, solitary pursuits. The world of Roman Catholic scholarship is intoxicating and permanently illuminating, for it is here that he comes closest to “what I represents.”