Narcissist or Voyeur: On Ann Quin’s “The Unmapped Country”

By the time “Tripticks” appeared in Ambit, Quin had already established a reputation for herself as one of England’s most promising young writers, part of a loose avant-garde crowd that included B. The body’s “pink fleshiness” is the problem, he decides, hacking off the head, only to have to jog after it like a runaway football, his pious attention collapsing into buffoonery. The extended fragment that gives the collection its title is the unfinished novel Quin was writing when she died. Held on to his head. She opened her mouth. The woman considers the alternative, “England? Quin situated her first novel, Berg, in the same seaside world of mildewed windows and stained sheets. Johnson and Alan Burns, broadly contemporaneous with the French nouveau roman movement of Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Reading her now, I am struck as to how such a vibrant writer could have fallen so completely from public attention. It’s compelling at times to watch an experimentalist fail at their high-wire act, but these stories undermine the overall quality of the collection. Quin’s writing (swirling symbols, gathering paranoia) suits a larger canvas, in which mood and tone can accumulate. Yet it was painful to know that I was reading the work that Quin was writing near the end of her life. Ash. The book’s success offered Quin an escape when, published to critical acclaim, Quin won the D. She has sex with the husband on the couch when the wife is out for groceries. Struggled. It allowed her to move for several years to New Mexico, a trip that had a profound effect on her writing. She watched herself. ¤
Josie Mitchell is an editor at Granta magazine. It can feel like a form of readerly madness — the recurrence of images across stories and novels becomes disorienting, like a jumbled dream. JANUARY 18, 2018
IN 1968, J. If “Ghostworm” and “Eyes that Watch” explore euphoria and saturation, “The Unmapped Country” explores the painful step beyond, a perverse crowding of experience. Quin’s short fiction is rightly reclaimed and republished by And Other Stories, and Jennifer Hodgson has done us a service by gathering these stories together, some from archives and personal collections. Constant detective work is needed to figure out who is who, who is speaking, who is looking where and when. Her body […] Love love what is it — what’s happened are you all right? England had offered plenty and had threatened her mental health. Her reviews have appeared in Prospect magazine and Review31. In “Never Trust a Man Who Bathes with His Fingernails,” set in the New Mexican desert, sexual tensions gather between a woman and the couple she stays with. Despite the controversy, the competition went ahead, and (though somewhat hard to believe) Ballard recalls receiving “a lot of interesting material. If these stories bleed together, and they do, then the book’s overarching narrative is that of a woman desperate to expand beyond the limitations of England, who escapes to the United States and Mexico and embraces liberty, artistic as much as sexual. The three of them visit a hot spring together and bathe naked. It’s true that archetypal figures haunt her writing: a musical father who blurs into a lover; a stifling, smothering mother. Set back in Britain, it gives a dismal account of the conditions in a midcentury British mental asylum, all “drugged submissiveness” and “white coated robots.” On her return to Britain after traveling, Quin had spent time sectioned and was submitted to electroconvulsive therapy. During her stint as a Fleet Street typist, her editor hanged himself in a cupboard next to a note “to the effect he had contemplated suicide for 40 years.” As a hotel waitress in Cornwall, she was stalked by a chef — “medieval face, round eyes” — who would jump out at her from behind bushes during walks along the cliffs. “The Unmapped Country” is a tantalizing read. In response, Chairman of the Arts Council Lord Goodman cut the magazine’s funding and threatened prosecution. I woke in the middle of the night screaming, convinced my tears were rivers of blood, that my insides were being eaten by an earwig.”
Quin’s late American stories focus more on the glamour of this hyperreal sensitivity, the synesthetic melding of sensation, the collapsing of mood and event. Passages (1969), Quin’s third novel, and to my mind her best, embodies this late dreamy style. Quin’s final novel, had it been completed, might have been radically different in style and structure. If, like Quin, that work consists of just four slim novels, then it risks diluting their legacy. By placing this fragment at the end, after a failed novel-in-progress, Hodgson seems to suggests as much. In this sense, it’s fair to say that Quin’s writing is challenging. In “Ghostworm,” the build-up of latent danger and tension that we see in “Eyes that Watch” has its release. In “A Double Room,” a young woman follows her older lover to a grim beachside hotel for an illicit weekend. There seems little worth, therefore, in tying this piece into a story about Quin’s development as a writer. I rarely went out in the evenings, but was a voyeur, in the sense of watching from my window the prostitutes.”
Clancy Martin — discussing another great experimentalist, Lydia Davis — says that “[w]riters tend to be either narcissists or voyeurs.” He’s right that Davis is an inveterate voyeur. There’s little risk of that here. Quin’s winning story, “Tripticks,” is an abrasive, swirling hallucination that follows a man chased through the American desert by his ex-wives, “glass faces behind me, twisted into grotesque shapes.” It could very well have been written on all kinds of more alarming substances, and counts for one of the 14 feverish stories and fragments gathered in The Unmapped Country, a volume that finally brings together the uncollected work of a hugely underappreciated British experimentalist. Boundaries are pushed and chaos courted until something is lost to madness; there is a return, a possible defeat. Arriving home, “I lay in bed for days, weeks, unable to face the sun. I don’t know when I discerned two voices in “Ghostworm,” nor quite when I started to think of them as lovers. It’s unclear whether this is an act of deception or just practical scheduling. The New York Review of Books judged her “arbitrary experimentalism” to be “digressive and unfortunate.” The Birmingham Daily Post, which had celebrated Quin’s “chaotic talent” in the past, felt that “the smoke screen has thickened into almost total obscurity.” Whether you can enjoy Quin’s late work depends on your ability to cope with uncertainty, elusive meaning, and the absence of closure. Idiot. In the undated memoir fragment that concludes The Unmapped Country, “One Day in the Life of a Writer,” she records that her request for an Arts Council grant had been rejected: “That’s cos they read what I did with the last one,” she muses. Ballard announced a competition to find the best fiction or poetry written under the influence of drugs, with a prize of £40 and publication in Ambit magazine. Be forced out. It is a frustrating ending, but then, so is Quin’s premature death. […] Oh that grey, grey thing creeping from the sky, smoke, buildings, into the pores of skin. Quin stood out as the author of vertiginous, staccato sentences and claustrophobic worlds — a woman famously contemptuous of the verb “to be.” Today, she is little known, little read, and her books are a challenge to track down. In “Eyes that Watch Behind the Wind,” a woman wanders through a Mexican landscape: “Under eyes. Perhaps Quin didn’t play well with others. In “Nude and Seascape,” an obsessive young man arranges and rearranges the dead body of a woman as flies settle on his neck and crawl into the corner of his eye. She had spent years tracking back and forth from Brighton to London, picking up secretarial and waitressing work in seedy neighborhoods. As a collection, these stories form a menagerie of styles and themes that produce in one book a cacophony. H. The scream couldn’t. There’s also more than a hint of incest in their age difference: in private, the young woman is part disgusted, part aroused by their “father and daughter act,” but under the eyes of the hotel staff she becomes repulsed by the “dirty old man” and his decrepitude. In her second novel, Three (1966), a middle-aged couple are processing the death of their lodger, a young woman known only as S., who, we slowly gather, has left a note, swum out to sea, and drowned. While Hodgson’s hands-off attitude is appreciated, there are some things that feel a little under-explained. Lounging by the hot spring, the woman wraps a towel around herself by the pool while the wife lies “laughing quietly, stretched out.” Quin is obsessed with threes. Quin is a strange combination of both — her obsession with others is her obsession with herself, in that she loves to observe the perversities of other people, and can’t help but fold their damage into herself and her writing. S. Left no part of himself. It would expand her scope from close, claustrophobic explorations of perversity to more fluid, dynamic stories that flit between perspectives and scales. Held her breath. And by combining Quin’s short fiction with memoir, Jennifer Hodgson encourages us to consider these autobiographical resonances in her work. Still, these stories dim in comparison to her longer fiction. G. Regardless, stuck in the rainy hotel, they get pissed and have halting, timorous sex. I often feel, reading Quin’s stories, as if the narrative has seeped into my mind by osmosis. In general cannabis was the best stimulant, though some good pieces came out of LSD.” Nevertheless, “the best writing of all was done by Ann Quin, under the influence of the contraceptive pill,” a drug that now appears comparatively tame, but that had been made legally available to women just seven years earlier. Get off my back.” Amid a flow of images, one begins to discern voices and then arguments: “Rooms she followed him. The political situation is “intolerable.” She’s accompanied by a lover; they bicker: “Unlike most men he gave her no patterns to abide in, therefore she had to make her own patterns, because of this he felt himself caught up entirely with her rhythms.” The reader is always a little lost, always on the cusp of understanding some imagistic connection. Of course, any reclamation of a cult artist is going to be met with criticism from die-hard fans. Did this sense of failure contribute to her depression, breakdown, and alleged suicide? The story opens to dissenting voices: “I’ll take the ashes to his wife tomorrow. Likewise, a short cut-up piece was written, we are told, “with Robert Sward.” All three are somewhat lackluster. Hair. This larger story may not be one of triumph, but it is a sharp, painful, electrifying read, and will, with any luck, bring Quin the lasting recognition she deserves. As the collection continues, the stakes of these battles rise; things speed up, names fall away, and Quin’s appreciation for symbols, images, and mosaics of meaning intensifies. Red candlewax.” The montage creates the feeling that things are being missed, that the experience is partial and unstructured, that all kinds of interesting connections have flowed by without one noticing. Never. David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King brought similar pain. Fascinated by incest, she saw in every father figure a lover and every lover a father, and in a person caught between lovers, a child trapped between parents. She fled Cornwall one night “in utter terror of being discovered, made to return,” an experience that precipitated one of many mental breakdowns. Seven years later, Quin would (re)enact her own story with startling precision, swimming out from Brighton pier. Her body was found the next day. Of those who wore slick neat city suits, who stepped heavily along the hot concrete. She was glad to leave that. Quin’s work has “the atmosphere of autobiography,” as Elizabeth Hardwick termed it. In presenting this collection of Quin’s “rare and unpublished writing,” editor Jennifer Hodgson must hope to redress the cultural disregard and amnesia that has kept Quin from readers for so long. Thumped between blood cells. Left her to clear up the remains. A woman searches a remote island for her missing brother. Though it is obviously unfinished, and unhoned, there are dazzling moments. It can be controversial to publish posthumous work, especially if the writing is not as strong as the rest of the author’s oeuvre. Throughout her work, trios collapse into duos, excluding some third party, then reform, before collapsing into new configurations. Madness would become central in her later stories. The change in tone is so jarring that one wonders why these pieces have been included. It lay. At her best, Quin writes with a slow-building intensity, capturing a particular place with frantic detail over a hundred pressure-cooker pages: Brighton, New York, Mexico, the American desert. Her first trip to New Mexico had given her an insatiable love of travel, and she visited many different countries in the following years, though she was always eventually forced home by financial limitation. They’re unmarried, and there is a moment of tension as they sign into the hotel under different names. She grew up in a convent, and “bound by perverse securities,” became fixated on Limbo, the place where, as a non-Catholic, “my soul, uncleansed from Original Sin, would end up.” Emerging from this fraught religious symbolism, aged 17, she nursed “a death wish and a sense of sin” driven by “a great lust to find out, experience what evil really was.”
The stories that follow this autobiographical snippet chart Quin’s changing style over the course of her writing career — a period of just 10 years that ended with her death by drowning at the age of 37 in 1973. Though much of her later writing would explore the liberating effects of the swinging ’60s, Quin’s early work takes place in the cramped, traumatized world of postwar England when, as Jenny Diski writes in her study of the era, “so much had been damaged and so little had been mended.”
Quin had grown up in Brighton, and her early stories capture the seedy deviance of the off-season resort. The menial jobs were meant to facilitate her writing, but long hours and bad pay made for difficult conditions: “I lived on potatoes, saved on the gas fire by going to bed, hotwaterbottled, typerwriter balanced on knees. No she could not go back to that.” Yet the tension leaves her with “a stone tied to an inside cord in her belly, turned, turned and twisted.”
Quin also feared returning to England. This late work was seen as increasingly schizophrenic and garnered mixed reviews from critics. Lawrence fellowship, the first woman ever to do so. Grey faces. No not again — go away. This was a woman who had grown up in a small English town, and all of a sudden found herself gazing out over the vast geologic spaces of the American mesas. Hodgson’s introduction is short and to the point: Quin, we’re told, was “a rare breed in British writing: radically experimental, working class and a woman” with an imagination committed to making British fiction “weirder, dirtier and more anarchic.” Beyond this, Hodgson allows Quin to relay her own biography, opening the selection with a self-mythologizing memoir fragment “Leaving School – XI,” in which the author tells her life story up to the publication of her first book. Two stories in the collection are presented as “ghosted” on behalf of one of Quin’s boyfriends, the artist Billy Apple. And froze. The young woman watches her own “lumps of flesh” in the mirror as she takes him into her mouth, the old man’s member “like a little boy’s”:
She held his head. If I went out into the garden I dug holes and lay in them weeping. (How far from “A Double Room,” with its eavesdropping waiters in grim little English hotels.) Of course, this free-love liberation brings new tensions: body issues, sexual rivalries. Glad not to be furtively looked at by those dark shells.” Agoraphobia threatens. Wouldn’t. Closed her eyes. Like Beckett, Quin likes to trap her small cast of broken creatures in an unforgiving world and torment them.