Review: The Unmapped Country: Stories & Fragments by Ann Quin

Quin, Ann, The Unmapped Country: Stories & Fragments, And Other Stories, 2018. ISBN: 9781911508144. £10.

‘Neither sane or insane – the thin edge I tread and I want to go over.’ Born in Brighton in 1936, Ann Quin lived a bohemian existence between England, Ireland, the United States, the Bahamas and Mexico. Treading the thin edge, her life came full loop when in 1973 she died while swimming out at sea in her hometown. At the time of her death, she was best known for her debut novel, Berg. In the intervening years she has been relegated to a footnote in literary history, remembered only by devotees of experimental and avant garde fiction. However, with this new collection, edited and introduced by Jennifer Hodgson, the time seems right for a critical reappraisal of Quin’s impressive contribution to twentieth-century literature.

In the late sixties, J. G. Ballard, who was never shy of courting controversy, called for submissions to Ambit magazine written under the influence of drugs. Quin sent in Tripticks, ‘An acre of grotesquely knotted thoughts, accessible only by foot or horseback; no roads had been cut into the wilderness.’ Her drug of choice was the contraceptive pill. But even if the piece was composed with relative clarity of mind, the narrator appears poised on the cusp of an abyss: ‘I lay in bed for days, weeks, unable to face the sun. If I went out into the garden I dug holes and lay in them weeping…I decided to climb back out of madness, the loneliness of going over the edge was worse than the absurdity of coping with day to day living.’

In Eyes that Watch Behind the Wind the option to choose between madness and sanity is denied as sensory and visual impressions crowd in so fast as to become claustrophobic, overwhelming the nervous system. The beauty of nature inseparable from the struggle to survive. ‘A startling brightness from the poinsettia, flowers of Christmas Eve, above her head bent low. Now high, watching the turkey buzzards circle, in their search for snakes.’

One of the longest pieces in the collection, The Unmapped Country is what remains of Quin’s unfinished final novel. Presumably still in its first draft, it is nonetheless an accomplished piece written after she had undergone electro-convulsive therapy to help cure her bouts of mental illness and paints a grim yet comical picture of life in recovery. As one of the narrator’s fellow patients relates, “The doctor is human you know yes he’s human I know now…‘cos he farted today when I saw him…I mean when you hear a fart and smell a fart then you know a man’s a man and he’s human.”

But laughter ultimately fades into darkness. In a passage that evokes Rimbaud’s Season in Hell, Quin writes: ‘The park used to be a shelter from the concrete and steel, it is now another inferno teeming with serpents.’ The conclusion to the piece, which may not have been intended as the end of the novel, is chilling given the circumstances of the author’s death: ‘On an island where either side of me evil forces are speeding by in their monstrous machines. I am not breathing properly, damn it my lungs are in poor shape; all those years of nicotine and tar; if I hold my breath then the cars will slow down and I can get across to the other side. Like underwater I manage it, and gasping for air I turn into some more back streets.’

Elsewhere, madness is expressed in recurring images of insects invading human bodies. Although never reaching Kafka/Burroughs levels of hideous transformation, the result unsettles the border between self and other. Published twenty years before Quin, Anna Kavan lived her life on this border. Addicted to opiates and suffering multiple breakdowns, her short stories and novels displayed a bizarre, phantasmagorial aspect that helped pave the way for the sixties experimentalists. But Quin collapsed what few narrative comforts existed in the works of Kavan. Like Beckett, she pulled at the thread in order to unravel the entire tapestry: ‘Plot can diminish in a forest of effects and accidents. Motivations can be done away, loose ends ignored.’ In doing so, she may have been seeking out some kind of essential impulse.

The German philosopher Schopenhauer identified sex as the main human impulse. Freud later amended this to include death. Affectionate sex between adults is a healthy component of the human experience; and natural death is the end to all experience. But these seemingly benign observations remain taboo even in today’s society. As Freud argued, when either sex or death become repressed, they manifest in humiliating and violent new forms of fetishisation and transgression. In her writing, Quin was unafraid to explore these subterranean currents bursting into the real world. Likewise, Kathy Acker.

Coming to prominence a decade after Quin’s death, Acker wrote that all culture today is advertising. Meaning a culture that in order to perpetuate itself must trigger human responses of fear, anxiety and low self esteem. With so much advertising content relying on sex, the act itself is reduced to a form of S&M, a form of slavery. Caged in a prison of distorted images, isolated, desensitised, degraded, the human animal becomes insane. Quin’s prose exemplifies this unremittingly bleak outlook, as figures struggle to form meaningful relationships in a world of inescapable media saturation: ‘And Lucinda would lie on top of me a tortured Earth Goddess with her magazine advertisement mouth closed forever.’

Sadly dying young of cancer, Acker looked forward to a world where the imagination would create out of joy rather than suffering. Three of the most interesting novelists of the last century, neither Kavan, Quin or Acker lived to see such a world. Perhaps the gauntlet they laid down for future writers is to find it on the page.

 

Christopher Brownsword

 


 

You can buy The Umapped Country: Stories & Fragments here.

Christopher Brownsword has reviewed books for 3 AM Magazine, Word Riot, Empty Mirror and Now Then among others. His Word Riot review of Mark SaFranko’s The Suicide was quoted in a recent critical study by Dr. Heather Duerre Humann.

 

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