For a time I was a regular presence in the slender Q-sections of my local bookstores. It was the first sentence of Ann Quin’s novel Berg that brought me there: “A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father . . .” I don’t remember where or why I read it, but I remember the ensuing search well. It lasted months. The bindings of those few Qs privileged enough to recur with any regularity—de Quincy, Queneau, Quindlen, Quinn—became familiar figures, an alliterative clique of book-backs attending to the baffling absence of any Ann Quin. I was patient, that alluring first sentence circling in my head till I knew every word, while I struggled to comprehend how a book with such a first sentence, such a seemingly iconic opening, could be so hard to find in New York City.
When I finally got my hands on a copy of Berg, Quin’s absence became a little more comprehensible—albeit much more unjustifiable—as I read the next two sentences:
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 webbed toes, strung between heart and clock, nibbles in the half light, and laughter from the dancehall opposite.
For this clearly went beyond the iconographic. This was the unpredictable churning of water, sentences uncurling their words like the jagged and fragmenting blocks of a misaligned Jacob’s ladder. I suppose I had assumed the first sentence of Berg was so strong that it needed to linger in the rest of the work, overtly implying not only the plot—which, to be fair, it does—but the tone, the rhythm, the type of sentence that could follow, like the “Once upon a time” of a fairytale. Instead, Quin’s first sentence arises only to be swallowed up in the brevity of a sharp fragment, a blip of an image that is nevertheless stylistically weighty enough to govern anything that could follow—one might expect a montage of shards. But the third sentence doesn’t follow the second. Instead it rakes this living, graceless prose over the thorny sprockets of a human presence. To read Quin, I soon learned, is to be perpetually engaged, or to be lost, a little like reading philosophy but demanding an almost opposite faculty of intelligence—to continually let go of what has been read, to let conflicting tenses and perspectives, styles and rhythms meld into the pothole texture of a raw experience, to become one with the paper-thin partition that divides Alistair’s boarding room from the room where his father sleeps: “a boat without sails, anchored to a rock, yet revolving outside its own circumference.” It’s a bumpy ride. And it doesn’t get any smoother in the novels that follow.
In Three, Ruth and Leon, middle-aged wife and husband, reckon with the aftermath of the recent suicide of their temporary boarder, a younger woman denoted only by the letter S. In the dialog-dense passages with which the novel opens, Quin has stripped the prose—not just of quotation marks and conventional paragraph breaks to differentiate speakers but, most unnervingly, all punctuation within each monad of speech:
The shadows of statues on the lawns stretched to the cliff edge. What shall we do Ruth it is our last day here fancy going out for a while? You’re so restless. Just thought you might like a walk even if only around the garden down to the swimming-pool say or—or by the sea whatever you feel like? How can you suggest that? But the dead can’t dominate like that besides she loved the sea you know that. Well I don’t why do you think I went through all the bother of getting the pool? I wanted it too love. Yes Leon to have your theatre in during the winter.
As in Leon’s ersatz theater—the couple’s empty swimming pool, where Leon, Ruth, and S perform pantomimes—Quin has staged her spectacle in a deserted playhouse. And just as the spectator of a pantomime must actively imagine the objects the mimes suggest, Quin’s reader must compensate for the lack of conventional cues in the prose. Whether Ruth and Leon speak staccato, run-on sentences, or mutter quiet lies and imprecations under cover of domestic dullness, depends largely on our own capacity to read punctuation into the dialogue. Through this absence of authorial intervention, Quin highlights the necessarily reciprocal nature of reading, and makes strange this process wherein depthless symbols assume the magisterial dimension of a theater. But even as she reminds us that reading is a relationship, Quin’s writing suggests dissatisfaction with this union, as though it could only be an infertile affair, a lasting type of quiet violence where power dynamics go unquestioned, where reader and writer remain unchanged, a marriage much like Ruth and Leon’s, as it appears reflected in the pages of S’s diary:
Narrow dimensions of theirs catch me up into an appalling lethargy, when anything would be welcome as a release. They swing each other against walls that bounce them back into themselves.
Between the monotonous monogamy of writer and reader, Quin introduces an adulterous third party, mirrored in the narrative by S’s presence. This intrusion, and the triangular relation it entails, reinstates the original tumultuous elements—insatiable lust, jealousy, uncertainty—that might have first spawned the monogamous romance, but now only overwhelm it. In the wake of S’s suicide, the emotional shrapnel cannot be reintegrated into Ruth and Leon’s life as a couple. Instead of adapting, they seek easy resolutions, scouring the records S left behind. In her journal and voice recordings, evidence more confounding than evincing, they encounter their own names, but curtailed and abstracted like hers: R and L—the right and left-hand side of some mystifying equation, like the strategies formulated in S’s recordings:
A plan is devised. For our amusement. With masks.
Three points A B and C on a rigid line. When
the points A and C being given B is chosen such that the sum
AB and BC is as short as possible.
Suggestion A walks past B and C. A might turn. Stop. Shrug.
Walk on. B and C watch. Perhaps follow A. Or separate. Pos-
sibly disappear together. Variations endless.
Three, like all of Quin’s works, is an insoluble situation. It doesn’t lend itself well to processes of easy digestion. Even this recurring preoccupation with the number three, interwoven into the narrative and textual construction of all four books, only superficially unites them. It is a structural model around which the author, like S, imagines and unfolds endless variations.
Another variation, maybe the most indigestible: Passages alternates between the perspectives of two unnamed passengers, lovers as incompatible as a pair of dreams, as they sweep through desolate Mediterranean towns and arid countryside. A woman in search of her brother records her experience in a fractured diary, shifting from first- to third-person, only to disappear entirely into splintered glimpses through her senses:
Dips of black, quarter whiteness. Patches of water along the coast. Rain walked designing its own shadow. Winds condensed on summits, the straight sides of mountains. The sea cut swift movements of clouds.
Chunks of text break abruptly, often opening disorienting impasses between sentences, sentences that might resume in the next paragraph, but might not:
A pool of light splashed on the marble. That part I entered, where I return. Again behind glass I saw
what did I see, for when the scene reappears it merges with a dream, fallen back into slowly, connected yet not connected in parts.
In the alternating passages we find the notes of the other passenger, the first narrator’s lover and travel companion. His notes, situated in time and aphoristic in style, are only slightly less obscure than hers. But the reader’s relief to find firmer fictional ground is instantly shaken by marginal notes appearing to the left-hand side of the text:
These marginal notes only sometimes clearly relate to the right-hand column; more often they connect abstractly—poetic descriptions of paintings on Greek amphorae, Talmudic excerpts, fragments of the other traveller’s conversation. But before the reader can even begin to consider connecting the two columns, we must first choose which to read first, when to stop reading this column to take up that one, how to determine which is marginal, which primary. Clearly, nothing seems supplementary. Our attention must remain divided, and not merely between the two columns within his passages but between his passages and hers, as they weave together without melding, briefly touch in half-recognizable instants, to depart irrevocably along the sightlines of antithetical experiences, existences which, while entirely contingent upon one another, must remain forever asunder and split. As he surmises:
The problem is to discover whether I can live with this woman’s demons without forfeiting my own.
Though Passages is possessed by an impossible cohabitation, Quin’s delicate architecture does not collapse. But neither can it withstand reduction nor abbreviation. Like a house of cards, nothing can be removed, nothing excerpted. It’s not the passages that matter but the passages between them.
An almost as inscrutable passage divides Quin’s third from her fourth book. Tripticks, published between treatments of electroshock therapy and Quin’s suicide in 1973, could hardly differ more from the spacious sparseness of Passages. A darkly comic novel with a relatively direct satirical slant, Tripticks brims with orgiastic excess:
If you come filled with dreams it may happen that your dream changes about every 15 minutes. The most is yet to come. 3,000 miles of strawberry ice cream. Lips are frenchfries teasing cole slaw fingers. My belly a Golden Poppy and the Motto is I Have Yet To Find It.
Our narrator is a weak-kneed sort of antichrist, a rapist and murderer if he only had the guts. Hunted by his “No. 1 X-wife” and her “schoolboy gigolo,” he pursues a reckless, seemingly drug-affected, or at least severely psychotic path across an American landscape distorted to schizophrenic proportions. In between paranoiac fantasies and freak-outs, the narrator recalls incidents from his various lives with his three successive X-wives. Eventually, the narrator’s manic ramblings are sliced through the center by a long series of hysterical and brutally castigating letters from a long cast of past phantoms:
It’s always a relief to have not heard from you for a long time it means that there was no crisis and I will survive another week.
No responses from the narrator separate these letters. They fall one after the other, each one implicating our narrator more firmly in cage of undisputed villainy.
Seen at some distance you loom like a tower of onyx robed in slashed summer clouds. Peer closer and you become a full-lipped flower bitten by the sun, bleeding pollen. I think I’m going to have an operation that will blot out my memory.
Amid these cavernous admonitions, one senses the author’s own exasperation, a lethal frustration with a skewed sense of authorial self. As a writer with three books behind her, Quin seems as eager as the No 1. X-wife to blot out the memory of her previous cohort. As much as literary tradition implements artistic confines, it’s Quin herself—the Quin responsible for Berg, Three, and Passages—against whom the author of Tripticks must escape in order to write freely. In order to evade imprisonment of artistic consistency, Quin not only flees stylistically, but turns to confront her first three novels with a mocking smile and menacing snarl, acknowledging, along with her narrator as he performs an abrupt U-turn to steer his car towards the incensed trio of castrating X-wives:
This is the sin of sins against an awkward power structure. The refusal really to take the situation seriously.
And this perhaps, as frayed as it is, is the common thread that most interlaces Quin’s wandering works and embraces her erratic patterns. As serious as so many of her passages are, every book escapes, one way or another, from the existential weightiness toward which it tends. Quin seems perfectly capable of delivering the literary achievement of the century. Like Alistair Berg, she is near enough to kill the symbolic father, to assume his lofted position in literary tradition. And yet, at the precipice of implementing her authorial omnipotence, of reducing her works to a recognizable achievement, a radically experimental opus that could be then by subsumed under a larger literary history, Quin, like Alistair, falters:
If I could only make things bow before the majesty of complete omnipotence, draw a halo around all desires. Why does power always escape as soon as it is touched?
Quin isn’t after the kind of power that can be touched. She seeks something subtler, a power that can be approached but never possessed, one ultimately destined to one of two failures: either Alistair is discovered before killing his father or he succeeds. In either case he loses everything he has gained. Success and failure are irrelevant to Quin. Her power, like Alistair’s, stems not from some Oedipal act, but from the deadly serious practice of child-like play:
Oh yes you were singing green in a golden age, dancing by the waters’ edge, under a mosaic sky; feather-crowned, grass-patterned thighs, and seven-leagued boots, petrified mud, magenta amazed.
Perhaps Ann Quin will never claim the presence she deserves in the Q-sections of our bookstores. Maybe she doesn’t need to. The subversive joy is there regardless, intermixed but never diluted in the monolithic violence that cannot overtake it:
Cells tighter than shells, you spinning into spirals, quick-silver, thrashing the water, making stars scatter.
Jesse Kohn’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Atlas Review and SAND Journal. His critical writing has appeared in BOMB and HTMLGiant.
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