Saturday, October 23, 2010

Book Review: "Annotations"

Annotations (New Directions) is an experimental first-time novella (96 pages) by John Keene, a St. Louis-born African-American gay man.

The book, "a series of mere life-notes aspiring to the condition of annotations," is presumably an autobiographical account of adolescent experiences, thoughts, and concerns. I came to that conclusion because it is set in and around the St. Louis area and the birth of the unnamed narrator at the Jewish Hospital of St. Louis occurs in the summer of 1965 (Keene's birth year) when "Blacks were transforming the small nation of Watts into a graveyard of smoldering metal."

Annotations is plotless, impressionistic, and rambling. Throughout there is page after page of unparagraphed sentences and the reader is never sure who is telling the "story" or to whom the pronouns "he," "you," and "we" refer.

Keene's frequent philosophising ("As a result those endlessly engaged in the quest for happiness usually constitute the unhappiest lot.") and clever use of language ("Your penis is a woodwind that some play better than others. What two men do.") are no substitutes for a cohesive, riveting, and satisfying account of the coming-of-age of one sensitive and creative black gay youth. If the book was focused on the unnamed youth's emerging sexual identity (the most interesting parts of the book), Keene's efforts might have been successful and enjoyable.

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