Three, by Ann Quin
Ann Quin’s second novel, three, is superbly written. It’s a book as much about its own form and structure as it is about story, although here form and story cannot be separated. It’s less than 150 pages long, but is distinctly not a quick read.
Leonard and Ruth are a middle aged couple. Until recently they had a younger woman identified as S living with them. S is dead, drowned, though whether by suicide or accident is unclear. Leonard and Ruth speculate as to what happened, and their conversations intertwine with excerpts from S’s diary and audiotapes which she left behind. The language is frequently confusing, intentionally so, and requires extremely close attention to tell who is speaking. Sometimes, often, I would have to backtrack to find the thread of a conversation. This is not an accident.
Here’s the opening couple of paragraphs:
A man fell to his death from a sixth-floor window of Peskett House,
an office-block in Sellway Square today.
He was a messenger employed by a soap manufacturing firm.
Ruth startled from the newspaper by Leonard framed in the door-way. Against the white-washed wall. A wicker arm-chair opposite the Japanese table. Screen. Sliding doors. Rush matting. A mirror extended the window. Gardens. A bronzed cockerel faced the house.
What’s the latest then? Fellow thrown himself out of a window. Ghastly way to choose. But Leon her wasn’t like that – I mean we can’t really be sure could so easily have been an accident the note just a melodramatic touch. No one can be blamed Ruth we must understand that least of all ourselves. Yes yes I know and one could say it was predictaable her sort of temperament. I don’t know. You mean you don’t really care Leon? Ah you should know the answer to that my love.
Here the prose acts as a camera, panning across the room “Screen. Sliding doors. Rush matting. A mirror extended the window. Gardens.” The viewpoint slides across, yet in staccato fashion. The dialogue here can be worked out, Leonard and Ruth speak alternately, but it requires a little thought before that becomes apparent. This is not prose one can lose oneself in.
Ruth and Leonard try to comfort themselves, and they go through the rituals of married life. Their surface troubles are quotidian ones. Underneath though is the question of what S meant to them, how she fitted into their lives and what she brought that they couldn’t provide for themselves. Their conversation ends and Leonard goes out to the greenhouse to inspect his orchids while Ruth goes upstairs to look through S’s cupboards.
What follows is three pages of sustained erotic charge. Leonard strokes the fat leaves of his orchids while Ruth wanders through upstairs rooms naked and searching through piles of clothes. The prose builds up, becomes frenzied, then peaks and tails off. Here’s a taste:
Still murmuring he reached up, brought one down, parted a layer of tiny leaves, and looked in. His fingers trembled. His body sloped. Face flushed in the one stream of light. He pressed the earth in, smoothed over. Paused longer at some, peered into centres, ran a finger along stems, pink against pink laid there.
Breathing slowly, he listened with the plants that sucked, dripped around and above.
She went from room to room, closed windows, doors, cupboards. Tried on clothes, shoes too narrow, hobbled to mirrors. Squeezed into dresses, struggled out, touched the material, traced the design. Folded, unfolded blouses, cardigans. Slipped them on, off, until the bed, floor were covered with layers of clothes. Into which she flung herself, motionless, face buried.
She powdered her flushed face, neck, brushed her hair.
As I say, three pages. It’s prose written in the rhythms of sex, but there is no sex. What replaces it is a sense of frustrated desire, of sex reaching out and infusing the house. As the novel continues there are some actual sex scenes, but they are brief and Ruth refuses when she can. She services Leonard as marital duty, on his relentless insistence (or, on one occasion when she says no, his outright force). It’s not that Ruth’s without desire, it’s that the only desire Leonard cares about is his own.
Against this are the fragments left by S. Most challenging of these are what I took to be the audiotapes, which become prose poems the meaning of which is at first unclear (and much of which never becomes wholly clear). S is recording emotions, impressions, and some of it can be understood in the light of her diaries, but it would I think take several readings of this book to understand most of them and an unreachable kernel would always remain.
This is one of the more accessible audiotape sections:
Surrounded by chairs. Animals released. Octopus faces gullet
corridor. Float from island to island. Inherited from both sides
Chippendale chairs. Unchipped. Upholstered in blue.
They call turquoise.
Persian rugs. Second skins. For them.
Silverware pawns. Salt-cellar dominates.
too small. Not small enough. But still-lifes that she used to do.
on the wall. Glass doors. Concealed lighting. White curtains
Nursery done in egg.shell blue. Empty.
A special place for the cat. Never used.
Visitors. Change of linen. Every other day.
Existence bound by habit. Hope. Theirs. Nothing to contend
The worst effort not to contradict their next movement
Again there’s that sense of prose as camera there, but this is more an exploration of significance than space. It’s reasonably easy here to understand what S is saying and what it means to her, but other sections are far more opaque.
This then is a novel of shadows. S played games with Leonard and Ruth in which they would all wear masks and improvise dialogue in mini-plays. Leonard and Ruth fight a pointless battle to keep ramblers off their section of the beach, which they privately own. Everywhere there is ambiguity and boundaries that shift or are ignored.
The Dalkey Archive edition of Three comes with a dismayingly perceptive introduction by writer and academic Brian Evenson. Dismaying because it leaves little for me to add. The best review I could write would be to type out his words. Evenson, rightly, points to Quin’s refusal to resolve the book’s strands. He points too to how the structure unsettles the reader, leaving them with doubt and a lack of finality as to what really occurred. He talks of the book “dragging readers into the text, demanding they plunge into the experience the characters find themselves in. The book refuses to stay at a comfortable distance.”
That’s exactly right. Here Quin forced me to engage closely with what she had written. I had to, because otherwise I didn’t even know who was speaking let alone what was being said. She brought me into an emotional post-mortem in which the only judgement is an Open Verdict. She infected me as reader with the uncertainty of her characters.
The result is a difficult and often disquieting book. The rewards though match the effort, and unless I have a truly exceptional 2012 or some terrible fate befalls me between now and the end of the year I will be very surprised if this isn’t the second Ann Quin novel to make one of my end of the year lists. Quin has been overlooked, but she shouldn’t be and if you’ve any interest in modernist or experimentalist (a term I dislike) fiction then she deserves attention.
By way of balance I found a more negative review online here, and another positive review here. There’s also quite an interesting general overview of her work here, which to their credit the negative reviewer also linked to.