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A DEATH WISH AND A SENSE OF SIN

THE POETICS OF ANN QUIN, by David Vichnar

Ann Quin (1937-1973) emerged from her troubled childhood—marked by her father’s abandonment of the family and the highly traumatic experience of the upbringing, despite her atheism, received at a Roman Catholic convent—with a severely impaired mental health which, following a series of nervous breakdowns she periodically suffered throughout her life, arguably also brought about her death by drowning at age thirty-six. She spoke of her catholic upbringing as of “a ritualistic culture that gave me a conscience. A death wish and a sense of sin. Also a great lust to find out, experience what evil really was.”[1]

In her fiction, Quin developed an idiomatic style blending non-linear narration, multiple viewpoints, and stream of consciousness, marked by poetic lyricism, fantasy-embedded, at times hallucinogenic registration, to explore such topical themes as the search for identity, the influence of the past on the present, and intergenerational pressures.[2] Her oeuvre, comprising four novels, is marked by a unique kind of development, an aesthetic progression of increasingly extreme experimentation with language and form – a progression paralleled with her fall from grace with its critical reception. Philip Stevick offered a fitting encapsulation of the poetics of Quin’s fictional spaces by singling out their four cardinal points: first, “in all four of the novels, the characters are never at home […], physical surroundings tend to be perceived in the way in which one sees them on a trip”;second, “the whole of experience in Quin’s fiction tends to be eroticized […], the phenomenal world tends to appear as if charged with sexual energy”;third, “extending through the four novels, wholes, perhaps more properly gestalts, tend to be fragmented […],in a way related but roughly opposite, the whole of anything threatens always to erode, split, merge into another thing”; and finally, Quin’s fiction “takes place at several levels of discourse simultaneously, alternately, contrapuntally.”[3]

Unlike her first two texts, both of which were rejected by publishers (and never appeared in print), Berg (1964) was published by John Calder[4] and was met with a sweeping critical success, this despite its explicit indebtedness to the nouveau roman movement. Set in Quin’s native town of Brighton, Berg‘s narrative is, in a monomaniacal fashion, determined by one sole intention stated already in the first sentence: “A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father” (B, 1). However, the parricide never takes place. Instead of killing him, Alistair Berg (the protagonist) becomes entangled in a series of deferrals, substitutions and repetitions: he becomes involved with his father’s mistress Judith, goes on to kill her cat as well as his father’s caged budgerigar, and winds up strangling a vaudeville-act dummy made in his father’s image. Later, Berg consciously misidentifies a body washed up on the beach as his father’s and returns to Judith, taking his father’s place. At the end of the narrative, Berg has replaced his father in Judith’s room, and a man resembling his father has moved into the adjacent room.

Quin’s achievement lies in conveying this plotline based on cross-dressings, mixed gender-roles and blurred identity boundaries, through a style generative of precisely this central narrative ambiguity:

Window blurred by out of season spray. Above the sea, overlooking the town, a body rolls upon a creaking bed: fish without fins, flat-headed, white-scaled, bound by a corridor room—dimensions rarely touched by the sun—Alistair Berg, hair-restorer, curled by webbed toes, strung between heart and clock, nibbles in the half light, and laughter from the dance hall opposite. […] A week spent in an alien town, yet no further progress—the old man not even approached, and after all these years, the promises, the plans, the imaginative pursuit as static as a dream of yesterday. The clean blade of a knife slicing up the partition that divides me from them. Oh yes I have seen you with her—she who shares your life now, fondles you, laughs or cries because of you. Meeting on the stairs, at first the hostile looks, third day: acknowledgement. A new lodger, let’s show him the best side. Good morning, nice day. Good afternoon, cold today. His arm linked with hers. As they passed Berg nodded, vaguely smiled, cultivating that mysterious air of one pretending he wishes to remain detached, anonymous. […] Rummaging under the mattress Berg pulled out the beer-stained piece of newspaper, peered at the small photograph.

Oh it’s him, Aly, no mistaking your poor father. How my heart turned, fancy after all this time, and not a word, and there he is, as though risen from the dead. That Woman next to him, Aly, who do you suppose she is? (B,1)

Quin’s narrative technique blends first-person and third-person descriptions of one character’s (here, as elsewhere, Berg’s) experience with words or sensations uttered or registered by other speaking subjects and consciousnesses (and thus either experienced, remembered, or hallucinated by Berg himself) without setting these off as dialogue by quotation marks or other means. In so doing, the style reinforces the key narrative theme: Berg’s failed attempts at forming an independent identity. Only the words of Berg’s mother, indented and set in smaller type, are differentiated from Berg’s – through these interpolations Quin manages to introduce into her narrative a style and sensibility markedly different from those of her protagonist’s. But ambiguity persists: are these interpolations remembered and recited, read and reproduced (through letters), or ventriloquised and hallucinated? Quin’s narrative methods create a highly unsettling, frighteningly volatile sense of identity. In this, Stevick argues, her interior monologue surpasses its modernist precursors:

It is not the inner monologue of a character in Virginia Woolf, registering sensation, conflating past and present, musing on other people, all in a kind of watercolor voice. It is not the inner talk of Joyce, as Bloom or Stephen observe the phenomenal world and interrogate themselves. Bloom’s talk scarcely seems “inner” at all, seems rather actual speech, acted out in the theater of the mind, and one imagines Bloom talking aloud to himself, at least shaping his words with his lips.[5]

The book’s warm reception inaugurated Quin’s career and won Quin two fellowships which took her on exotic travels from which her subsequent three novels were to draw inspiration.

Quin’s second novel, Three (1966), was completed during time spent in America on an academic scholarship. Three moves a step further than Berg in presenting a triangulation of characters matched by a triple narrative mode. The character triangle is composed of Leonard and Ruth, a well-off middle-aged married couple, and “S,” a temporary refugee seeking shelter at their house while recovering from an abortion, who disappears (at both the novel’s beginning and end), leaving a note that suggests that she may have drowned herself. The three narrative modes (marked as variously typeset blocks) in Three are the following: accounts of Leonard and Ruth that detail their actions and conversations in the best camera-eye nouveauromanesquevein; transcripts of tape recordings by S, which are presented in discontinuous lines akin to free verse; and extracts from Leonard’s, Ruth’s and S’s journals. The narrative is presented as a process of unveiling, and yet the documents employed that claim to reveal the past end up raising as many questions as they resolve. From the very start, ambiguities also arise concerning Leonard and Ruth’s possible implication in S’ disappearance:

A man fell to his death from a sixth-floor window of Peskett House, an office-block in Sellway Square today.

He was a messenger employed by a soap manufacturing firm.

Ruth startled from the newspaper by Leonard framed in the doorway. Against the white-washed wall. A wicker arm-chair opposite the Japanese table. Screen. Sliding doors. Rush matting. A mirror extended the window. Gardens. A bronzed cockerel faced the house.

What’s the latest? Fellow thrown himself out of a window. Ghastly way to choose. But Leon hers wasn’t like that—I mean we can’t really be so sure could so easily have been an accident the note just a melodramatic touch. No one can be blamed Ruth we must understand that least of all ourselves. (Th,1)

Here, Quin’s clinical, objective narrative tone renders a reality perhaps less pathogenic than in Berg but one that is no less oppressive: the reality of a dysfunctional childless marriage replete with petty bickering, mutual estrangement and highly traumatic sexuality. An obsessive accumulation of detail pertains to descriptions both of physical surroundings and of character action: “The hotel. A room. Three beds. Cupboards that never close. Turn about. Green wallpaper. An old man bears hot chocolate on a silver tray” (Th,22); “Leonard leaned forward, legs apart, body suspended in an enclosed area” (Th, 40). In both cases, the most common effect of Quin’s camera-eye technique is defamiliarisation. S’ diaries—deciphered by both Leonard and Ruth—are less about preserving facts than about asserting, even performing, a self, and providing a world to go with it. This world is, again, highly autobiographical, as reminiscences of childhood spent at a Catholic convent, often disguised as blasphemous punning, suggest:

Corpus Christ processions.

Wearing white. Petals thrown.

Kneeling

on hot tennis courts. Tarmac clinging. Hymns chanted.

Hell Mary full of grapes. Our Father who farts in Heaven. (Th,36)

Three’s primary interest lies in the tension between inner lives and the outer reality of the married couple and the disintegrating effect of the absence, from that reality, of the third, silenced member. As Brian Evenson notes, Three is a text “whose function is not primarily representational; instead, it is affective, and refuses to stay at a comfortable distance.”[6] Quin resists any kind of resolution, preserving ambiguity to the end, which is the narrative’s most intriguing, if also frustrating, feature, a frustration that was reflected in the novel’s critical reception, far less enthusiastic than with Berg.

Passages (1969) forms the third stage of Quin’s gradual attenuation of the narrative conventions of plot, temporal continuity and characters, taking further the process of merging identity with the poetic properties of her prose style. Here, the plotline becomes extremely diffuse, featuring a man and a woman travelling in an unnamed, probably Mediterranean, country beset with political tension,[7] bringing about the couple’s suspicions of being under surveillance. The main driving force of the narrative is, again, established in the opening sentence and sequence; the woman is on the quest after her disappeared—and possibly dead—brother:

Not that I’ve dismissed the possibility my brother is dead. We have discussed what is possible, and what is not. They say there’s every chance. No chance at all. Over a thousand displaced persons in these parts, perhaps more. So we move on. Towards. Away. Claiming another to take his place, as I place him in profile. Shapes suiting my fancy. Rooms with or without connecting doors. He watches when she isn’t around. A perverse protection he knows she needs. From this need

he takes notes. For a book. Journal. Report in some hotel. I no longer question. Parts of him I want to know, others he tells me of. Trips he has made here before. The sea. […] Light in parts of skin. Movement so near, by stretching my hand into the open

I heard cicadas, wind colliding with trees. Sounding an ocean in the long room. I opened the shutters. Town huddled above the sea. Thin shadows of cypresses. (P,5)

Quin once again employs block form in the narrative, dividing the text into four sections; the first and third can be attributed to the woman, and the second and fourth to the man. As is clear from the quote above, the first and third parts consist of paragraphs separated by line spaces rather than the one line space employed in standard paragraph breaks, with paragraphs breaking off before a sentence is completed, and the opening words of the following paragraphs completing the sentence, though every now and then the course of the sentence is diverted from its expected track. The second and fourth segments are composed of the man’s notes, possibly for a book, journal or report, stylistically a pell-mell of aphorisms, definitions of words, mythological allusions, bits of dialogue, notes on the woman’s fantasies, descriptions of (or fantasies about) her, accounts of dreams, and “cut-up dreams” in which elements of two dream-accounts are spliced together. The use of parallel columns adds to the disorienting effect of these passages. The left-hand column includes entries in small type, whereas the entries in the right-hand column are in standard type. A note at the front of Passages describes the items written in the left column as the thoughts that provoked the entries in the right column, but the link between the two is open to arbitrary realisation differing from one reading to another. There are several mythical references in the man’s text, especially to Greek mythology. Thus, Passages presents a first conscious deployment in Quin’s fiction of intertextual linkages. More importantly, they also provide for disquieting points of connection between the seemingly separate man’s/woman’s passages, and these uncanny echoes of the mythical within the everyday suggest an emergence of the ancient and pristine in the drab contemporaneity. The novel’s final passage, set in the diary-form, ends on a note unresolved to the point of offering a new beginning, a new opening, which resists the final full-stop:

Saturday

So let us begin another journey. Change the setting. Everything is changing, the country, the climate. There is no compromise now. No country we can return to. She still has her obsession to follow through and her fantasies to live out. For myself there is less of an argument. I am for the moment committed to this moment. This train. The distance behind and ahead. And that soon perhaps we will cross (P, 111-2)

Despite both refining the style of Quin’s previous novels and deploying hitherto unused techniques, Passages was met with an even more lukewarm critical response.

Quin’s last novel Tripticks (1972), which draws on her American experience, is her most fragmented text, endowed with a graphic dimension provided by Carol Annand’s pop-art style illustrations. The narrative is at its thinnest here, attributed to a male narrator whose opening sentence foregrounds his own multiplicity: “I have many names. Many faces” (Tr, 7). The narrator is being pursued by his first “X-wife” and her lover (or possibly he is pursuing them) – a pursuit involving car chases, a sojourn in a motel room next to the room occupied by his former wife and her lover, a stay at a CENTRE FOR STUDIES OF THE BODY AND THE SOUL, and finally, a visit to an Indian reservation. Identities further dissolve and disseminate themselves as the chase becomes interspersed with monstrous, comic, and erotic images and anecdotes of the narrator’s relationships with his many wives, his mother and stepfather, and with other relatives and prominent strangers. Sexual explicitness, graphic directness and the franticness of presentation of the concerns of Quin’s earlier novels positions Tripticks as a type of negative to her earlier camera-eye style. Familiar themes are magnified and carnivalised – the narrator resents and wants to kill his father and, at times, his first X-wife and her lover. Eavesdropping and voyeurism are also prominent, as when the narrator overhears and looks through a keyhole at the lovemaking between his first X-wife and her lover. Finally, he also witnesses the primal scene during which he suffers through “every move, every moan my mother made from my room next to theirs” (Tr, 57). Tripticks offers a variety of styles and images, operating according to principles of collage which continue to lessen the importance of narrative progression and plot. Linguistically, increasing portions of narrative are occupied with lists – here is the narrator’s “statement of personality”:

smart, well-educated                                             Lack of respect for authority

ambitious                                                 lack of spiritual and moral

deep concern for social                         fibre

problems                                                  lack of responsibility

good values, character                          lack of manners

communicate                                          lack of dialogue with elders

independent thinker                                               values ill-defined

poised personality                                  lack of good study habits

vocal, will speak up                                                lack of love for fellow men

mature, prepared for                                              lack of self-respect

life                                                              too impetuous

versatile, able                                          too introspective

intellectually curious                                              too introspective

well-groomed                                          nothing missing

care about community   (Tr,16)

A similar cataloguing impetus drives the novel’s fetishist depiction of sexuality:

Waitresses clad in bikini bottoms and pasties serve noon-time Bloody Marys and roast-beef sandwiches. We even dressed up for these scenes, and had all the necessary equipment:

Prostitute                 half-bra of shimmering satin the sensational lift supported the under bust urging her up and out and leaving her excitingly bare but fully supported.

Lesbian                    a penis-aid to assist, non-toxic, flesh-like material with LIFE-LIKE VEINS

Nymphet                   grease-resistant – easy to clean. Soft. Pliable.

Flagellist                   a raised clitoral stimulator. Comes in three colours.

                                   EBONY. BROWN. FLESH-COLOUR. (Tr, 40-1)

Quin’s critique of the consumerism of contemporary American culture is manifest in her overuse of meaningless acronyms, commodities made of letters that servea specific ideological purpose:

don’t forget to practise Enthusiasm daily APRPBWPRAA (Affirmative Prayers Release Powers By Which Positive Results Are Accomplished). (Tr, 35)

Man’s wanderlust conquering time. Who’s helping to increase his mobility? The R. D. (Re-frocked Diplomat); the M.A. (Mythmaker Allies); D. Gs. (dependent Generals); the N.I.M.H. (National Institute of Mental Health); the D.S.I.A. (Diaper Service Industry Association); S.D.S.A. (State Department Security Agent); and HEW. (Tr, 45)

Having abandoned her own version of interior monologue and the polyphony of lyrical narrative voices, Quin’s last text is a surprisingly ironic and parodic pastiche targeting some of America’s most acute historical-social traumas, especially Vietnam. It is not only identities and selves which are in danger of collapsing into each other, it is the very possibility of articulating any self without immediately entangling it in the emptied language of systems of power, of ideology, of commodification. In the conclusion, the narrator symbolically—in view of Quin’s own impending self-silencing—abjures this power by ceasing to speak: “I opened my mouth, but no words. Only the words of others I saw, like ads, texts, psalms, from those who had attempted to persuade me into their systems. A power I did not want to possess. The Inquisition” (Tr, 192).

While the back cover hailed Tripticks as a work “prefiguring the formal inventiveness of Kathy Acker” and Books and Bookmen praised its exploration of “a verbal continuum somewhere between ambidextrous punpricks, Joycean parody and sub-Burrovian cut-uppery,” the reception of the British press was at its chilliest, the TLS deploring its “fatal attention to the powerful underlying humourlessness of the whole thing.”[8] Soon after completing Tripticks, Quin suffered another mental breakdown and spent a month in a London hospital, unable to speak. While at work on her fifth novel, “The Unmapped Country,” and compensating for her lack of formal education by enrolling in University of East Anglia to read English, in August 1973, Quin drowned in the sea off her native town of Brighton. Suicide is the unofficial but likely cause.

Quin’s experimental novels exhibit a profound sensitiveness to the workings of the mind and consciousness as always determined by language and perceptual processes. Stevick recounts an anecdote in which Quin’s psychiatrist, treating her in 1970, requested for copies of her novels as therapeutic material. A request which might be viewed as naïve, yet appears “perceptive and compassionate,” for in Stevick’s conclusion,

[Quin’s] novels do give a record of a mind that is, at once, artful, distanced, dispassionate and raw, immediate, its tensions unresolved. And that is what makes those four novels so powerful and so unusual. They take the self and others, one’s voice, the voice of the nonself into areas not quite occupied before. “I opened my mouth, but no words,” reads the end of Quin’s last novel, Tripsticks, with an accent that, even now, startles.[9]

Quin’s unusual combination of themes and techniques gave rise to a style unique in its powerful energy and disorienting effects,gradually abandoning depiction of consciousness for the sake of exploring the workings of language and the possibilities of their typographic representation. As such, her accomplished poetics stand as one of the most original examples of the experimentalist vein within post-war British fiction.

 

[1] Qtd. in Evenson, “Introduction,” Ann Quin, Three (Chicago, Illinois: Dalkey Archive, 2001) vii-viii.

[2] Nicholas Tredell painted a picture of Quin as a follower of the modernist project “of developing style and structure in an attempt to achieve a closer fidelity to the moment-by-moment texture of lived experience” (Tredell, “Ann Quin,” 230).

[3] Phillip Stevick, “Voices in the Head: Style and Consciousness in the Fiction of Ann Quin,” Breaking the Sequence – Women’s Experimental Fiction, eds. Ellen Friedman & Miriam Fuchs(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989) 234-6.

[4] Giles Gordon pointed to the prestige attached to Quin’s having her first book pubslihed with Calder: “Calder, and his partner Marion Boyars, published only a few British novelists, and thus when Berg was published it was something to be read. Here was a working-class voice from England quite unlike any other, which had absorbed the theatrical influences of John Osborne and employed the technical advances of the nouveau roman. Berg, to use shorthand, is a Graham Greene thriller as if reworked by a somewhat romantic Burroughs” (Gordon, “Reading Ann Quin’s Berg,” ix).

[5] Stevick, “Voices in the Head,” 232.

[6] Evenson, “Introduction,” Three, xiii.

[7] Commentators speculate that Quin’s travels in Greece and the 1967 military coup might have formed the backdrop.

[8] Times Literary Supplement (5 May 1972), qtd. in Tredell, “Ann Quin,” 237.

[9] Stevick, “Voices in the Head,” 239.

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