In 1995, a young writer named John Keene published a marvelous, odd, and slender book called Annotations. The title was very much of the era—think Roland Barthes’s Mythologies and Raymond Williams’s Keywords, then still in heavy circulation in your hipper university lit departments. It was a slim, slippery thing, not quite a memoir and not exactly a novel, as heady and at times abstruse as its title suggested. Its methods were equally poetic and novelistic, but something was lacking, like a house glimpsed in a dream, all windows and doors but no walls. In the book’s final sentence, the author advised that it should be understood as “a series of mere life-notes, aspiring to the condition of annotations” (italics mine). It was, or aspired to be, a collection of marginalia to a missing text, the contours of which the reader was left to divine.
That text sometimes looked a lot like Keene himself: black, gay, raised in St. Louis, enamored with language, tormented by it. (“In the absence of a system of pure and unmediated signs, he nearly gave up on living altogether.”) Alternately, it followed the trajectory of a single family, “bourgeois yet working-class,” as they ascended from Catholicism to Presbyterianism, moved to the suburbs, unraveled due to largely unspecified causes (“A clue, alcohol”), and through it all raised a child they did not know exactly what to make of. “Neither parent had expected such a fragile character,” wrote Keene, and he repeated the assertion almost verbatim 16 pages later. The absent text, the one under annotation, appeared also to trace the recent history of something we might hesitantly call “Black America,” beginning “as Blacks were transforming the small nation of Watts into a graveyard of smoldering metal,” and winding a path through “Urban Renewal” (or, as Keene translates, “it’s the Black folks that got to go”) and the violence, despair, and fragmentation left in its wake. Panning out just a little, Keene’s missing text seemed to have the same shape as the country at large. “Montgomery. My Lai,” read one note. “To what extent is American history the history of American capital,” read another, without a concluding question mark. Later, “the actor assumed the nation’s highest office.” Beneath it all, the lash of slavery—buried and ignored, if never all that far away.
But Keene took great care not to actually write those narratives. He wanted them visible only via refraction, as if through mirrors or the slats of a blind, which makes it feel a bit unfair to suss them out like this, to lend them a fullness and presence that he thought it so important to avoid. “Oozing, seething magma of presence, what I represents,” he wrote with disgust in what I believe is the only instance in which the first-person-singular pronoun appears outside of quoted dialogue. While writing about himself, or some past and perhaps fictive version of it, Keene used “you” or “he”—as in “He was usually charily chosen for the kick-ball teams, or last for any sport requiring aggression,” or “but what you sought, like any artist, were the very events themselves.” Sometimes he went with “we” or “they,” but never with that stabbing “I.” Many sentences remained gloriously free of any consistent grammatical subject: “Jumping double-dutch, till the night sky touched the ground, or jacks, but still the girls would play too fairly.” This, of course, was the idea: to sketch out a subjectivity at once as local and diffuse, as concrete and elusive, as the thing itself. Which is neither thing nor self, and neither here nor there, but some intimate yet disparate other embedded in history, culture, race, community, as much as in any single body, or single mind.