The novels of the English experimentalist Ann Quin are not like most: although she was loosely affiliated with a movement of pioneering British writers in the 1960s, among them B.S. Johnson and J.G. Ballard, she remains singular in her aversion to the usual strictures of structure. Her books careen wildly among verb tenses and perspectives. They lack the customary form—the start, the climax, and the denouement—that holds most stories together.
Yet even when Quin is shredding the conventions of traditional narrative, she fills her work with trios. Instead of plot arcs, there are love triangles. In Berg (1964), Quin’s outlandish retelling of Hamlet and her first published book, a man sets out to seduce his father’s girlfriend (and afterward to kill his father, though he does not succeed). In Passages (1969), Quin’s third novel, a man on a tortuous trip with a woman fantasizes obsessively about sadomasochistic threesomes. And in Tripticks (1972), the last novel Quin completed before committing suicide in 1973, a man is chased across America by his ex-wife and her new beau. The book contains illustrations by Carol Annand, and many of its poppy cartoon panels are triptychs.
Then there are the failed families, the dyads that should be triads, the couples who invoke their absent complements. Berg, the eponymous protagonist of Quin’s debut, resents his philandering father for leaving his mother, to whom he writes dutifully each week. The unnamed couple in Passages are searching for the woman’s missing brother. And in “Motherlogue,” a 1969 story published in Transatlantic Review, a harping mother complains to her daughter about dating in the aftermath of her husband’s abandonment.
Three is an odd number that leaves one party unpaired, but it is also a lush number that dissolves the usual binaries. “There can never be just one relationship,” Quin said in 1965, in an interview with the playwright Nell Dunn. Quin’s characters fall short of her expansive ideal. Many of them are isolated and secretive, sequestered in cramped apartments and mired in their own anxieties. Several of them keep journals. Still, their paranoia renders them porous: some hear voices, and many are so fixated on the objects of their rage or lust that they can no longer disentangle self from other.
Three, Quin’s second and most trigonometric book, is her most characteristic. Originally published in 1966 and last printed in 2001, it has just been reissued, as Passages will be in the coming months. These latest volumes arrive after the 2019 reissue of Berg and the 2018 publication of Quin’s collected shorter works. Though acclaimed in her lifetime and beloved by eccentric stylists like Kathy Acker and Deborah Levy, Quin’s writing has never had more than a cult following, and the present revival promises to bring a difficult and fiercely original writer to a wider audience for the first time. Three features that central Quinian configuration, a deficient two-person unit, in this case consisting of Ruth and Leonard, bourgeois loafers who long for a child they cannot conceive. And it has the unstable romantic trio—Ruth, Leonard, and their mysterious boarder, S. (Does the initial stand for “siren”? “sister”? “surrogate”?) Fittingly enough, S’s role is triple: she is lover to Leonard, symbolic twin sister to Ruth, and a sort of daughter to both of them, at least as long as she is alive.
When Three opens, however, S has already whittled a ménage-à-trois into a tepid twosome: the book begins just after she has drowned herself. Nonetheless, she lingers on in Ruth and Leonard’s dismal beach house, where they spend their days squabbling and trying to decipher the inscrutable journals she left behind. On the street, they think they glimpse her; at dinner, they reflexively set the table for three. S is never entirely absent. Between death and life, a strange alternative flickers.
Though S always hovers in the background, Three consists almost entirely of dialogue between Ruth and Leonard. Their domestic bickering ricochets back and forth like a furious tennis volley: “Did you clear the snails away? Yes I guess so. But did you Leon they’ll be all there in the morning and you know…. They’ll be back again anyway especially if it rains in the night.” Or they brood about S:
We should have gone with her Leon. She liked rowing out on her own. You went with her sometimes. Only once or twice then felt I intruded. But didn’t she ask you to go the evening before? We had shopping to do. And it was stormy in the morning even she remarked how the clouds were low-lying mountains couldn’t be seen either. She should never have gone. How—how will we ever be certain Leon how?
We, too, are never certain. In the absence of quotation marks, we cannot tell what is voiced rather than dreamed, or who is saying what to whom. Three is full of physical smashings that violate the boundaries of objects: neighborhood vandals shatter sculptures in the garden, and S’s journals mention an aunt who broke a china cup.
Meanwhile, Quin chips away at the barriers between the utterances of her various characters until their words bleed together. On the one hand, Three is congested: the clauses of its occasionally run-on sentences cleave to one another, and its characters are largely housebound because of the grim winter weather. Outside, there is “the river, yellow, curled into purple mud. Boats like dead whales, upturned.” The beach is strewn with “bottles, cartons, orange peel, banana skins, sanitary towels, stockings, contraceptives.”
On the other hand, Ruth and Leonard encounter each other across a chilly distance. They are rarely in the same room at the same time, and both prefer the presence of their nonhuman companions. While Ruth dotes on her cat, Leonard tends to the orchids in his hothouse. Ruth rebuffs his advances, and the few times he manages to touch her, he does so violently, as in the harrowing scene in which he holds her down and rapes her: “You’re hurting oh Christ it’s hurting me don’t—no Leon are you mad?” But even this burst of brutality does not quite crack through the routine that has congealed around them, and afterward they return to bickering over which vegetables to cook for dinner.
Everyone in Three seems to be floating in dirty water. No one ever progresses, not even physically. Ruth and Leonard do not move forward but pace from one room to the next. Leonard works in the hothouse, but to no end, since his flowers are always uprooted by the gang of local vandals. Despite their investigations, Leonard and Ruth never come to any conclusions about S’s death, much less about her life. Even their preoccupation with her seems idle, like litter drifting on an unctuous tide. And though they talk incessantly, they do not convey anything.
Quin herself took part in several threesomes much like the ones depicted in her fictions, which tend to involve two women with one man. In a 1972 interview in The Guardian, she reflected:
I think everyone is bisexual, and people ought to explore the fact a bit more. This [having a threesome with a man and a woman] was certainly a very beautiful experience for me….
It was important to my writing in that it extended the fantasy. Sometimes when you explore a fantasy it stops short of the imagined thing. Most do. But this actual experience was so far beyond the fantasy that I found it very, well, you could say enlarging…. God help me, my mother’s going to read this.
Though Quin insisted she was not political—when asked if she was interested in politics, she answered simply “no”—she was passionately averse to being stereotyped or relegated to fixed categories. She resented men who dismissed her on the basis of her sex, and she told Dunn that she wanted to be regarded not as a woman but “as a person, as I accept them [men] as a person.”
She was born in 1936 in Brighton, and her father, first an aspiring and then a decisively failed singer, abandoned the family when she was ten. Quin’s many adolescent attempts to enlarge her contracted household had a desperate, incestuous flavor. At fourteen, she met and fell in love with her older half-brother, who died five years later. At eighteen, she said, “I went up to London to spend Saturdays with my father…and pretended he was my lover.” Despite her best efforts, she was mostly left alone with her overbearing mother, and her fiction reflects her frustration. In “Motherlogue” a woman talks over her offspring: Quin has omitted all of the daughter’s replies, leaving gaping indentations in their place. In The Unmapped Country, an autobiographical novel about a woman in an insane asylum that was unfinished at the time of Quin’s death, her alter-ego thinks, “Even when dead her mother, no doubt, would be watching her.”
For most of her youth, Quin attended a stern convent school, where she developed her fascination with trinities and her taste for transgression. As she told The Guardian, “there’s nothing like a Catholic upbringing for a sense of sin: if you have that you enjoy sin so much more when you get to it.” At nineteen, she moved to Soho in London, then still grubby and affordable. The theater was as good a place as any to start courting damnation, and Quin, who had played Caliban in a school production of The Tempest, decided to try out for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).
The botched audition that followed was traumatic and transformative. “I began, froze, asked to start again, but was struck dumb, and rushed out, silently screaming down Gower Street,” she recollects in an autobiographical fragment included in The Unmapped Country. It was then that she resolved to become a writer rather than a talker. Though her fiction features many performances, they are usually of the sort that trouble speech: Berg’s father hopes to become a ventriloquist, and the three main characters in Three rehearse mime routines in a pool drained for the winter.
Quin herself spoke little during her first years in London. As she told Dunn, she did not know anyone yet, and in any case she had no time for socializing. By day, she worked as a secretary. By night, she wrote for hours:
I continued going into the office, a whale’s mouth of a place, small window overlooked fire escape. Days spent in typing out contracts, answering the telephone, taking letters and so on. And going back every evening to my novel.
In the end the novel was rejected, and Quin took a job at a Cornish hotel and started writing a new book.
But in Cornwall Quin suffered from the first of the breakdowns that would assail her for the rest of her life. Just as she had done during her RADA audition, she became “speechless, dizzy, unable to bear the slightest noise.” For weeks, she languished in bed, but she ultimately decided that “the loneliness of going over the edge was worse than the absurdity of coping with day to day living.” Ever fidgety, she took a job as a nanny in Paris, then as a part-time secretary at the Royal College of Art in London. When her second novel was rejected, she set off in despair for Italy and Greece.
In fairy tales, the third time is the charm. Quin’s third effort, written when she returned to London and resumed her secretarial work, was accepted by a publisher. Squelching and sordid, Berg begins, “A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father.” The town is Quin’s native Brighton. The season is winter, and the weather is bleak. Berg’s lodgings, which reek of “wet fur,” are more like a burrow than a room, and the corridors crawl with people who resemble vermin. He moves “crab-wise” and has hands as creeping as mice. His father is “mole-like,” and his father’s girlfriend has “pigeon eyes with mascara fly-squashed in the corners.” Even his bloodlust is like “the stirring of the insect between throat and heart.”
By far the most linear and conventional of Quin’s books, Berg earned her the prestigious Harkness Fellowship, “awarded to the most promising Commonwealth writer under the age of thirty.” Shortly thereafter, she met and began an affair with the married American poet Robert Creeley, who was in England on a reading tour. He helped Quin obtain a D.H. Lawrence Fellowship, and in 1965 she headed to New Mexico. From there, she traveled across the American West, where she worked on Three and took LSD and peyote. When she returned to Europe several years later, she had what her Guardian interviewer describes as “an acid trip without the acid.” In a frenzied bout of mania, she spent the entirety of an Arts Council grant on a literal trip to Ireland, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, where local police officers discovered her romping naked in a snowdrift.
After her escapades in Sweden, she was committed to an asylum in Stockholm, fed intravenously, and given shock treatment. She was in and out of mental institutions for the final years of her life, during which she more or less disintegrated. She worried that she was being tailed by Russian spies, and became convinced that she was telepathic. As the writer Alan Burns reports, during what was supposed to be a reading at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1969, Quin “just sat and looked at people, she wouldn’t say a goddamn word! She just stared, she either implied or she actually stated that we sort of ‘think-communicate.’”
Quin struggled to speak during many of her depressive episodes, and her later books are exercises in agonized inarticulateness that can be painful to read. In Passages, paragraphs break off mid-sentence, and sentences fragment into shards. At every step the prose seems to strive for silence. Her final book, Tripticks, written in the early 1970s, “relies heavily on cut-ups from ‘Time,’ ‘Life,’ television commercials and Yankee sex and criminology pulp,” as Quin told one interviewer. The book’s twangy American narrator is so pickled in pop culture that he is unable to speak in his own voice: when he opens his mouth, advertisements blare out. Quin’s own late prose feels similarly ventriloquized. Though she denied his influence, Tripticks reads like a machismo mash-up by William Burroughs.
Shortly after its publication, Quin returned to Brighton for the last time. Her father had just died, and her latest lover had abandoned her. She was no longer a member of a twosome, much less a threesome. It was 1973, and she was thirty-seven. At last she was finished with all her attempts at talking. She headed to the Palace Pier and drowned herself.
Quin once suggested that the English are uniquely inadequate talkers. “Verbally we can’t really communicate,” she told Nell Dunn. When she listed her influences, she named only one of her compatriots: “Dostoevsky, Beckett, Virginia Woolf, Camus, Gide, Antonioni, Fellini, and, wouldn’t you know it, Last Year at Marienbad.”
Passages is Quin’s most arduous attempt to leave her homeland behind her. Though most of her fiction is set near the cold seas off the British coasts, this book takes place somewhere scorching, perhaps in a lazily fictionalized Mexico or Greece. As the unnamed male protagonist puts it, “The sun is very different here it tears through the body and eats out the heart.”
The inevitable trio in Passages involves a woman and a man in search of the woman’s missing brother, who is almost certainly dead. The book veers from the woman’s perspective to the man’s sketchy journal, which consists of entries in the center of the page and annotations clustered along the margins. In his wistful and enigmatic musings, the man frequently resorts to cheesy koans such as, “I have hardly anything in common with myself.” At one point he wonders, “Is it her body I hold in my arms or the sea?”
The woman’s sections are even murkier. In place of paragraphs, she speaks in unindented chunks separated from one another by thick slabs of space. Many sentences straddle these blocks of text, as if they were crossing borders or bridges:
Waves recoiled from places they struck. Hands felt the dry under parts of sand. One hill
in darkness. Sheep, goat bells heavier as we approached.
From one line to another, the woman darts between the first and the third person, as if she were always seeing herself as someone else might see her.
As it turns out, she has ample cause to worry about how she appears to others: she and her lover travel frantically from one city to another because they are pursued by shadowy officials. Like much of Quin’s fiction, Passages is at once paranoid and voyeuristic, populated by characters who watch and are watched in turn. In Three, S might stand for “specter,” but it might also stand for “spectator”: even as Ruth and Leonard rifle through S’s journals, they learn that she read Leonard’s diaries long ago. But in Passages, surveillance shades into full-fledged stalking. There are hints of vague political turmoil, and the woman is imprisoned and interrogated: “A blinding flashlight on her face. No sense of who touched her, who she was stripped by, who woke her as soon as she tried to sleep.”
Reading about her ordeal, we too become disoriented. Though Quin believed Passages to be her best novel, it is in fact her most dated. A relic of the 1960s, it is packed with sex designed to offend or provoke, much of it embarrassing. Early in the book, the man wields a whip during a threesome with two women, and afterward he cannot stop congratulating himself on his transgressive tendencies: “A dozen times I go over it, half awake, in dreams sometimes it is the other woman who handles the whip, who dances over me, my body covered in sperm, sweat and blood.” Worse still are Quin’s invocations of an inchoate exoticism. At a party, or a dream of a party, the man wanders into a room, where he finds trays of suggestive fruit and robes that are “Medieval, Greek, Egyptian, Oriental.”
However acutely she longed for the foreign, Quin falters when she strays from the pebble beach of off-season Brighton, as she herself may have suspected. In the 1969 story “Ghostworm,” an Englishwoman in New Mexico thinks of her native country, which she reluctantly characterizes as her home:
And back home yes still “home” they’ll be having a TV newspaper vegetated day…. Orgy of roast beef and Yorkshire pud. Ah! Missed that cup of tea, just the words have a cup of nice dear the kettle’s boiling won’t take a minute you’ll feel better. Safe comfortable rituals, the monotony that keeps fantasies moving.
As was typical for her, Quin belonged on neither side of the accepted dichotomy. She could neither leave nor love England; her solution was to return to the country but to remain outside of its norms—just as S hovers near but outside Leonard and Ruth’s smothering marriage.
In Three, Ruth is repulsed by one of the sculptures in the garden because it is hermaphroditic. “So grotesque didn’t even have a head I mean was it a man or a woman that thing sticking out of what looked like breasts?” she complains. But Leonard defends the work, perhaps recognizing that it resembles his beloved S, at least in her more rapturous moments. In her journals, S sometimes thinks back to an ecstatic affair from her past, writing, “Yes yes yes Be a boy. If you like. Anything. Be Just be.”
In these reminiscences, the dialogue is joyfully jumbled. If we cannot tell who is talking, it is because S and her lover cannot keep track of where one person ends and the other starts, where one phrase breaks off and the next begins: “There seemed no limit. In approach. Counter-approach. Retraction only to be forced over the edge. Hung. Looked into as a mango fruit torn open. Expanded.” Here, prose and person fracture in order to exceed themselves. Often Quin’s characters shrink within constricted twosomes. But sometimes they spill over into threes and are swept out to sea.