Sinister Shapes Emerge

Ann Quin, The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments

And Other Stories, 192pp, £10.00, ISBN 9781911508144

reviewed by Liam Harrison

Ann Quin’s writing has been largely neglected since her untimely death in 1973. She died by drowning in her hometown of Brighton, just as her precursor Virginia Woolf had died in the same county 32 years earlier. Quin was part of the British avant-garde scene of the 1960s, which included BS Johnson and Christine Brooke-Rose, who were interested in pushing beyond the narrow confines of ‘realist’ literature. She travelled to Mexico, Greece and the US, and the landscapes of these countries emerge throughout her prose, especially as a welcome escape from stilted and stagnant post-war England. Quin’s work is concerned with mental stability and societal pressures, themes which were influenced by the many severe spells of depression she suffered, and her harrowing experiences in psychiatric institutions where she underwent electro-convulsive therapy.

Quin’s The Unmapped Country is an eclectic collection made up of short stories, fragmentary pieces, non-fiction blurring into fiction, and the beginnings of an unfinished novel. Published in early 2018, and assembled and edited by Jennifer Hodgson, the collection makes the case for Quin as a significant late modernist author. The formal variety of these texts is matched by their protean content: they elliptically splinter off, paragraphs are broken up by enjambment and caesura, the plot points fade out, and conversations go unspoken – all combining to give the impression of thoughts left unfinished.

Quin’s writing fluctuates across The Unmapped Country from intense, personal confession to a cold and clinical detachment. In the latter detached mode, dead and alive bodies are analysed with an unchanging post-mortem perspective. In ‘Nude and Seascape’ a man who resembles Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, fresh from sucking his stones, finds a body on the beach which he positions in various poses to suit his artistic temperament:

‘Against the landslide he found the body alone spoilt the effect, it was really only the head that was needed. He searched for his pocket-knife, it was a little rusty, which meant it would take some time.’

The discomforting yet innovative playfulness in rearranging the dead body mirrors Quin’s own limber, experimental prose, which veers down uncanny avenues of exploration. ‘Nude and Seascape’ ends with a moment of reflection: ‘He looked at his clothes, his hands, they were covered in blood. He waded into the sea.’ The act of seeking redemption in the ocean, is of many (perhaps futile) acts of purification across The Unmapped Country, whilst the movement also eerily foreshadows Quin’s own death by drowning.

‘A Double Room’ is a story which details a damp squib of an affair. A young woman has an unconsummated, clandestine relationship in the seediest of seedy English seaside towns, with an unattractive man whose defining features are snoring and commenting on the weather. The couple’s non-sea-facing hotel room is decorated with: ‘Yellow wallpaper. Yellow bedspread. Pink carpet. Shiny insect-yellow dressing table. Chintz curtains.’ The room echoes Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, in which a woman is locked away in a yellow room by her husband and doctor, sentenced to ‘the resting cure’, until she sees sinister shapes emerge in the wallpaper. Like Gillman’s story, the spectre of madness is never far from the surface across Quin’s writing – the women are driven to despair by the twin evils of patriarchy and parochialism.

The several failed attempts at having sex in ‘A Double Room’ are indicative of romantic relationships across these texts which are fraught and insipid. The sense of impotency in ‘A Double Room’ is exacerbated by the shadowy presence of the hotel staff who blankly yet knowingly watch the couple, creating an oppressive environment where every wink and tasteless meal reminds the couple of their sexlessness. There is a Pinteresque quality to Quin’s work, in the combination of quotidian filth, daily grinds, and clipped, terse speech which work together to create a kind of formal vertigo. Pinter famously said of his plays, ‘What I’m writing about is realistic but it is not realism.’ The same aesthetic sentiment applies to Quin. However, whilst Pinter’s women are often reduced to symbols of sexuality and instability, Quin’s women possess an interiority and agency, even as they rally against the forces of psychiatric institutions and patriarchal expectations. In Quin’s work the women, in many guises, are given a voice.

The family is just one more trap for Quin to escape from, to add to the nets of claustrophobic England, and the oppressive morality of the church. The autobiographical text ‘Leaving School’ details Quin’s own childhood in a convent school under the panoptical gaze of the nuns. Before long Quin starts making her own theological conclusions: ‘Christ after all had been made in the image of man, and men were to be distrusted’. ‘Motherlogue’ is a text which reads as it sounds, an unrelenting phone call from the mother – a collage of questions, judgements, and useless tidbits:

‘hello hello are you there who who who’s she     oh Richard’s wife yes of course well I suppose he must miss the children and that is a problem isn’t it dear do you really think she’ll divorce him I mean
    and oh by the way you might tell him to get that magazine readdressed it keeps coming here you know with his wife’s name on it’

The formal and specifically grammatical experimentation of Quin is notable across The Unmapped Country. Quin uses suspended blank spaces between words to denote a rupture more seismic than the polite trailing off of ellipsis – a formal technique which is popular with contemporary novels pushing the limits of language such as Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians. These breaks between words speak to the static breaches of modern communication, as lines break up, connections fail, and meanings are misconstrued. Yet for all the linguistic fallout there is a sharp line of humour running through The Unmapped Country – from the acute ear Quin has for quotidian speech patterns (‘it’s good to eat often and little does he still eat with his knife’), to the tragicomic elements of having a breakdown, anticipating darkly comic texts of isolation such as Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond 2015). Jennifer Hodgson traces the genealogy of Quin’s work in her introduction, underlying her roots in Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen, the familiar sense of destructive playfulness in Kathy Acker and Chris Kraus, and her ‘joy in confronting the subterranean aspects of human experience’ resonating with contemporary writers like McBride, Bennett, and Deborah Levy.

The collection closes with the eponymous ‘The Unmapped Country’, 50 pages of an unfinished novel set in a psychiatric ward, negotiated by Sandra who tries to survive by flushing her pills down the toilet and hiding from the other patients. The environment is chaotic, whilst Quin often mocks the curing capacities of art therapy classes and psychoanalysis: ‘I would find my father and stab him in the back, which of course means I really want him to fuck me.’ The riotous and relentless atmosphere is wonderfully demonstrated by the cacophony of voices, all shouting at once, during a group therapy session:

‘I think there ought to be two televisions it’s not fair just having the one and Mrs. Whatshername hogs it all the time I never see what I want to see.’
‘I want to know when I can leave?’
‘I don’t think it’s fair being woken up at six in the morning.’
‘Someone has stolen my slippers.’
‘I have a poem I’d like to read it’s called “The Trees Aching Green” – when the trees move…’
‘We don’t want to hear any of your crappy poems.’
‘When the trees begin to walk…’
‘I want to know when I can go home?’

As with most of the texts in The Unmapped Country, the comic quickly descends into the sinister and the uncanny – the laughter prompted by one sentence can be quickly cut short by the next. One moment a patient is convinced that the nurses are planting earwigs inside the patients’ heads, sneaking them into the shepherd’s pie, the next moment a patient is being restrained and violently dragged out of a room through double doors into unseen corridors. The sense of confinement is palpable, as we witness in Sandra the imprisonment of the body and the will. She is constantly told ‘you can’t sleep now Sandra’, until it becomes a refrain of the story, punctuating the staccato sentences, and underlining the strong desire throughout the collection to break free.
Liam Harrison is a PhD candidate at the University of Birmingham researching late styles and modernist legacies in 21st-century literature.