Ann Quin. The Unmapped Country: Stories & Fragments. And Other Stories, 2018.
“The Unmapped Country,” which is the title story from this just-released collection of writings by Ann Quin (1936-1973), might well serve as the password to all of Quin’s work. Before drowning herself in the English Channel in Brighton, Quin published four novels, three of which I have written about in the last three months (Berg, Three, and Passages). In The Unmapped Country, Jennifer Hodgson has collected Quin’s published stories and tracked down unpublished fragments from personal collections and public repositories. The result is a collection of such stylistic diversity that I can’t help but pay homage to the drive that kept Quin pushing further and further into an “unmapped country” of writing.
Written over a brief period of something like seven years, these fourteen pieces could probably pass as an anthology by several different writers. While some writers seek to find their voice, Quin seemed to have a need to explore voices. Her narrators and main characters are female, male, children, passive, angry, feminist, conservative, well off, working class. In “A Double Room,” a woman, traveling on a train with her married lover, says to herself “Already, I’m thinking in the third person. Seeing us as another passenger might.” The male narrator of “Tripticks” tells us that his “special interests” are “living out other peoples’ fantasies,” which might be another way of saying—at least in part—what a writer does.
Quin was also a great mimic of the abbreviated and sometimes contorted fragments that pass for full sentences in our conversations. Here’s the speaker in the wonderfully titled “Motherlogue,” which gives us only one side of a telephone call between a mother and daughter:
you know Peggy who was found dead after a whole week the landlady discovered her only because of the smell coming out of the landing there she was a whole week rotting away well apparently she’s earth bound they’ve had several new lodgers in and each one hasn’t stayed long terrible things happening in the night bedclothes taken off furniture thrown about and one girl even had her nightie torn off…
In 2003, Brian Evenson and Joanna Howard co-authored an essay about Quin and her work in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, where they asked themselves the question “Would republication of these stories add to Quin’s reputation?” The answer they gave then was:
Probably not. Publication of the remainder of ‘The Unmapped Country’ might, however, add a chapter to critics’ sense of Quin’s artistic development, particularly if there is more to the novel than the single published chapter. However, Quin’s reputation for the time being must rest largely on her four completed novels, novels that show her as an important figure in British innovative writing, one whose work still remains intriguing today.
I would beg to differ with Evenson and Howard. At least four of these stories are jaw-droppingly powerful, each in their own Quin-quirky way: “A Double Room,” “”Every Cripple Has His Own Way of Walking,” “Never Trust a Man who Bathes with his Fingernails,” and The Unmapped Territory.” (And how about Quin’s titles?) If nothing else, The Unmapped Country gives the reader a concise overview of the wide range of narrative possibilities Quin managed to explore across the span of four novels.
In the seemingly simple sentences of “A Double Room,” Quin quietly tucks harrowing revelations in the midst of banal moments. Here’s her lonely main character waiting at the train station for the married man she is about to spend the weekend with:
Cabs swished by. People rushed through barriers. Escape. Escape with my lover. But he isn’t even that. In her small room. On her single bed they had gone so far. Fully clothed. No we’ll wait it wouldn’t be fair I have to leave you soon. Now the weekend he would prove to be
She clutched her bag. Glanced at the clock. And there he was. His hat cuckoo-perched on an unfinished nest.
I can’t get over the sadness I feel when she has to retract her own thoughts and remind herself that this man is not her lover and will never be her lover, that he’s just using her. Then there is the unfinished sentence with no ending period when she again catches herself, afraid to think any further into the weekend. And how about the brilliant description of the man’s hat and hair? “A Double Room” is a devastating story of a woman alternately struggling to/refusing to come to terms with her loneliness and her need/hatred for men. At the end of the story they return from an mutually disappointing weekend by the sea, passing through a staccato inventory of emptiness.
The fields. Hedges vanished. Suburbs crawled in and out. The football fields now dry. Now empty. The river red flecked with white. The power station powered out its smoke. They walked through the barrier. Paused in the half empty station. Well. Well? Well I’ll ‘phone you. No it won’t be any use will it? Well then it’s goodbye—goodbye love. And he rushed into the underground.
But before the day is over, she has rethought everything and has called him up and asked him over on Thursday, her resolve completely erased.
In “Eyes That Watch Behind the Wind,” an Englishwoman and an American man traveling through Mexico attend a bullfight—”the meeting place of challenge”—which becomes a description of their tense, tenuous relationship. As she watches the matador facing off with the bull, the drama in the ring suddenly becomes her own inner drama.
The pulse in his neck moved
a small creature, ready to jump out, seize her own neck that arched back, down, where she felt the ache. The ache at times of wanting this violence in him to break out. Devour her. Hurt me hurt me hurt me. But not in this way. Not in the heavy silence of them both facing each other, weapons concealed. The final turning away, not even in anger, but resentment.
Once again, Quin uses an abrupt line-break to signal a pause before moving on and a gap that must be leapt across.
Later on, at the beach, the man playfully buries her body in the sand up to her neckline, causing her to flee into her imagination and her fears.
The trance then had been quick in coming. She had nearly reached some point in space. A space in herself, yet outside her body, when she felt his mouth, warm, salty from sweat, sea, on her eyes. She was jerked out of an area into a place she did not recognize, and then she saw the arrows. Breaking out from these she ran.
in a space she had so nearly found, but then filled in by the arrow points. She threw her body, no longer her own body it seemed, but just a body hurled out of the ground, into the mountains of water, she bent her head under, rose up, bent again, and struggled out. Further out to higher and higher mountains. Away from the beach, where she knew he waited, watching, not quite knowing. Unsure again.
And if she returned?
If she chose not to, but moved on out into the ocean until perhaps the area she had so nearly reached could be touched upon.
At fifty pages, the title piece is the longest in the collection and yet it is still a fragment, meant to be part of the novel that was left unfinished at Quin’s death. But it’s a promising fragment, full of themes that one imagines she would have developed further. When we first meet Sandra, she is being treated in a mental institution, locked in a daily battle with uncaring doctors and nurses, psychiatrists who make no real effort to understand their patients, and dismal living conditions. In her journal she has written: “Today I do not know the date….I can no longer remember how long I have been here and yet I count the days for when I am discharged. They say ‘soon.” ‘You are making progress.’ It is all pretence on their part, as well as mine.”
Like it’s predecessor, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), one of Quin’s intentions in “The Unmapped Country” was to use a mental institution as a devastating critique of society whose values have become topsy-turvy. But it’s in the second section of “The Unmapped Country” (which was not included when “The Unmapped Country” appeared posthumously in the 1975 anthology Beyond the Words: Eleven Writers in Search of a New Fiction) that we see the real focus of her novel-to-be: Sandra’s unraveling mind and her relationship with Clive, a painter whose days as her boyfriend are numbered. The first section of “The Unmapped Country” is written in third person, but here Quin switches to first person perspective, and over the course of twenty-five pages she gives us an insider’s view into Sandra’s mind as it devolves into chaos, struggling with forces outside of her control. “I have been chosen, but cannot choose,” she proclaims. She experiences odd visions, sees God, and is paranoid about Russian spies. She quits her job, gives up smoking and eating meat and taking the pill. She wants a child. Clive doesn’t.
Seen from the third person, and in comparison to the other patients in the mental institution, Sandra seems relatively sane. But in truth, she is utterly disintegrating within. In this bisected piece, Quin was playing with what she had only hinted at in several other pieces in this collection. Fascinated by the flippable nature of narrative, she was exploring the dialectic between life and fiction, between living and being watched living—especially as it played out in a work that was as autobiographical as this piece, where Quin was, in some measure, simultaneously watching and writing herself. After Clive visits Sandra in the institution one day, she writes in her journal: “Have just seen C., and saw myself seeing him, saw him seeing me, or rather not seeing me.”
Listen to Quin’s precise reading from Three (about thirty-six minutes long).
Robert Buckeye. Re: Quin. Dalkey Archive Press, 2013. A very brief, but handy book focusing on some of the themes in her work, like sex, silence, and death, along with a short biography.