My review of The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments by Ann Quin. The Guardian (Review), 13 January 2018, p. 10.
Reduced to an anomalous footnote in British literary history — a female, working-class, avant-garde author — Ann Quin is all too often taken as read. Yet her work is as open-ended as those sentences she regularly produced that trail off into silence, casting a spell instead of spelling out; floating away on their reserve of potentiality. As open-ended, indeed, as her life, which she took at the age of 37, swimming out to sea off Brighton’s Palace Pier in 1973. She left behind four novels — including her celebrated debut, Berg (1964) — along with scores of short-form pieces, some which now appear in a thrilling new collection of miscellanea.
Spanning the author’s entire career, The Unmapped Country, edited and introduced by Jennifer Hodgson, builds up a portrait of the artist as a restless spirit, forever adventuring into the unknown. In an autobiographical skit, Quin mocks her reputation as an experimental author, attributing the Arts Council’s rejection of her grant application to their having read her last book. The diversity on display is impressive, however, as she studiously avoids getting trapped in any one style or genre. “Every Cripple Has His Own Way of Walking”, with its enchanting evocation of childhood and unflinching depiction of the decrepitude of old age, is a technically accomplished but surprisingly conventional short story.
“A Double Room” is kitchen sink drama set in Patrick Hamilton territory, while “Tripticks”, which developed into the novel of the same name, recalls Donald Barthelme at his quirkiest. “Living in the Present” (1968), a Burroughsian exercise in cut-ups conducted with the American poet Robert Sward (her then lover) seems to pave the way for JG Ballard’s media-saturated The Atrocity Exhibition.
Some pieces are straightforward memoir; others are clearly fiction, but there is a great deal of overlapping between the two (from this perspective, the author could be considered as a pioneer of autofiction). Quin frequently displays an ambivalent attitude towards mothers in general, and her own in particular, mirrored by a love-hate relationship with a dreary postwar England, where vegetables were still served up “as though chewed already”.
She resolved to become a writer after being “struck dumb” during her RADA audition, and her work always retained a strong theatrical quality. Several stories here are monologues. The two pieces written in the early 60s for pop artist Billy Apple (another lover) give voice to the ludic, transatlantic idiom of the emerging counterculture. Inevitably, considering her recurring bouts of depression and the electroconvulsive therapy she endured, mental illness looms large. The eponymous novella offers a devastating — albeit often hilarious — critique of psychiatry. Sudden shifts in perspective are common, as one character points out during a train journey: “Already I’m thinking in the third person. Seeing us as another passenger might.” And then there is the encroachment of the sea. A girl envisions her bedridden grandmother’s legs as sticks with “barnacles and millions of half-dead fish clinging”. In “Nude and Seascape”, which channels the affectlessness of Camus, a woman’s corpse becomes an object in a gruesome still life composition: “Against the landslide he found the body alone spoilt the effect, it was really only the head that was needed. He searched for his pocket-knife, it was a little rusty, which meant it would take some time”.
This struggle between order and chaos runs through Quin’s work. The husband in “Never Trust a Man Who Bathes With His Fingernails” wants to impose a tight schedule on his handyman to curtail the “impression he gives of unlimited time”. Sandra’s descent into madness, in “The Unmapped Country” (1973), takes the form of a hermeneutic disease, whereby everything — even birdsong or “the placing of twigs and leaves” in a park — is construed as a cosmic message. This is, of course, an eminently literary malady: “It takes me a long time to read now, a paragraph holds so much significance, and everything links up.” After being sectioned, she attempts in vain to piece together her hallucinatory journey: “Last events came first, the beginning at the end, or suddenly reversed, or slid into panels mid-way.” The grand narrative eludes her, leaving only “vague notes for the basis of a shape”. A subtle parallel is drawn between the signals Sandra picks up – the broadcasts she tunes into – at the height of her delirium, and the analyst’s Freudian worldview. In her journal, she scoffs at his “stupidity in listening and believing in the radio he switches on” at the beginning of each session.
Although the novella remains unfinished, an alternative to the absolutist, patriarchal vision of art depicted in “Nude and Seascape” seems to emerge when Sandra dismisses her boyfriend’s pursuit of posterity through painting: “How much better to create like the Navajo Indians, beginning at sunrise in the desert, a sand painting that would be rubbed out by sundown.” Having burned her latest contribution to the hospital’s weekly art session, she elects to make “paintings with her footprints in the snow”. The temptation to go beyond the confines of the canvas or page finds its natural expression in Quin’s penchant for juxtapositions and lists. This vagabond style is the perfect vehicle for the ecstatic urge to “go over” and “live beyond” oneself. To keep on walking through the snow, like Sandra, with unlimited time on your hands.