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“Disrupt the certainties”: Ann Quin’s Three

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One of the extraordinary gifts the British writer Ann Quin had was to see the real discourse going on beneath the surface of ordinary conversation, the prejudices, messages, and class distinctions encapsulated in tiny, seemingly innocuous phrases, the roiling power struggles in the daily chatter of couples. In Three, her second novel, published in 1966, a good portion of the text is devoted to the conversations that take place between Leonard and Ruth, a married couple, who are puzzling over the disappearance of a young woman—known only as S.— who rented a room from them and had become part of their family, so to speak. They suspect she has drowned by swimming too far out to sea, either recklessly or on purpose. Quin often gives us their conversations as if they were a verbatim transcript, interspersed only with brief indications of what the two are doing as they speak. These sections are written without any quotation marks or line breaks or indication of who is speaking. At first, this is likely to make the reader a little seasick until, slowly, the text begins to level out as the mind learns to sort out the dialogue.

Do you think she was in love with you I mean. . . .Good heavens what makes you say that Ruth? Well it’s conceivable after all you’re attractive lots of young girls look at you I’ve noticed and don’t pretend you hadn’t realised that. I wasn’t denying it. How long did you in fact know her Leon before—well before I met her? Can’t remember exactly came to work for me let’s see must be a year or so. Did you know she had an abort—abortion? When? Before she came here in fact that’s what she said and not the illness we were led to believe. Oh. Is that all you can say Leon? What is there to say I know you don’t agree with that sort of thing but she was a practical girl in many ways. He continued reading, turning the pages carefully over. She fell back against the pillows, stared at the folds in the curtains. More tea love?

At times, Quin seems to be pushing the text toward disintegration, edging the reader to a purely instinctive comprehension of prose that rejects full sentences, the structure of grammar, and the protocols that that are supposed to govern fiction writing. This is especially true when Ruth and Leonard listen to some strange reel to reel tapes that S. recorded and left behind. In these tapes S. often speaks as if in a trance, hopping from subject to subject, from word to unrelated word.

Dreams. Day dreams
fashioned
from white walls. His thoughts. Female semen seep through
undergrowth.
Lying in wait. For something. The unexpected. Disrupt
the certainties. He declares familiarity of the city. Knowing his
way
around
streets. One way. No entry.

But in other segments a narrative slowly emerges.

Streets
elevators
houses. Pressed closer. A cab to a place near a park. Seven a.m. Over-generous tip. Smiles. Knowing. Impression of a too-expensive hotel. Perhaps they didn’t have a vacant bed.
After all.
Injected
made ready. In white. Like half drunk. Must not lose consciousness. Various instruments. Wad of blood retained shape of gynaecologist’s finger. Low voices in ante-room. Cylindrical light above. Chromium. Breathe deeply. Push. Where is it—was it big enough to see? Three months. What do they do with it in a bottle throw away?
A cab back. Not enough change for a tip.

Three is a novel in which these three broken characters endlessly scrutinize each other, spy on each other, and write up their separate versions of the day in their journals. Ruth secretly reads Leonard’s journal and Leonard secretly reads Ruth’s, but neither seem to learn anything meaningful about the other. In addition to listening to her tapes, Ruth and Leonard read S.’s journal, in which S. sometimes writes about them. “Funny how she observed us,” Ruth says to Leonard, “quite honestly I would never have recognized ourselves from her descriptions.” But the truth is that S. ruthlessly sees through their mind games and delusions. And of the three, only S. is capable of observing herself with any sense of clarity.

On days when the three are bored they play a game that involves wearing masks and miming grim scenarios. “Let’s pretend we’re the only inhabitants after an atomic war. Or prisoners all in one cell.”

Ruth and Leonard are both trying desperately to maintain some semblance of British order and rectitude even as the world around them seems to be turning violent. On several occasions, vandals damage the yard of their summer home and shoot off fireworks close by. Strangers on the street and in nearby cars seem threatening. Their house has become their fortress against changes in society they find disturbing.

The novel’s intense heat is generated by pervasive sexual tension. Ruth and Leonard flirt with each other and talk openly about sexual matters, but it’s as if they were playing roles they’ve both grown tired of. In fact, Ruth has become sexually repelled by Leonard, even as she desperately needs him to dispel her loneliness. “When we met he was a God, a brother I never had, perhaps a father too. His faults were endearing. . . .When did all that falter, what day, night did I feel this appalling separation, a certain loss of identity?” Quin hints pretty strongly that Leon and S. have had sexual relations, and Ruth tries several times to pry details out of Leonard without success. Leonard’s desire for Ruth is purely an animal need, devoid of any tenderness or eroticism, both of which only become apparent when he visits the orchids and other exotic flowers he raises in his greenhouse.

Toward the end of the novel the tension boils over and Leonard violently rapes Ruth. She flees and drives aimlessly around, before returning home, the only place where she feels any type of security.

Hearing the door open, he closed the diary, picked up the newspaper, redirected the lamp, until the light shone on the headlines. He heard her steps in the corridor, saw her shadow against the wall, above the desk, waver there. He turned the newspaper over to the back page, aware now of her shadow falling away, her steps, a door closing. He stared at the painting above the fireplace. His hand curled over a catalogue cover of an orchid. . . .

He . . . .paused over a small item at the bottom of the page.

“The unclothed body of an unidentified young woman, with stab wounds in back and abdomen, was found yesterday by a lake near the Sugarloaf mountain. A blood-stained angler’s knife and hammer were also found.”

Is the woman in the newspaper S.? Quin never definitively tells us what happened to her.

Throughout Three—as in each of her four novels—Quin can create a deeply etched scene with only a few crisp lines, ramping up the emotional intensity through the economy of her words, an economy that forces the reader to become comfortable with ambiguity and with questions that go unanswered. For Quin, there were no easy answers.

Three was reprinted in 2001 by Dalkey Archive Press.

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