The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments by Ann Quin
And Other Stories, January 2018
178 pages – Amazon
A couple of weeks ago, I went to see a mediocre movie with an incredible cast, The Post. In the previews, I witnessed a group of people trying to categorize every movie in a genre, and I wondered about the need people have to categorize art of any medium. I thought about the book that I was reading, Ann Quin’s “The Unmapped Country,” and how it legitimately defies categorization, definitely intentionally. I contemplated on a core area of my literary interest: my limited interest in plot, as a reader, when the stylistic virtuosity of the prose is on paper.
The book itself—published by And Other Stories—is a spectacularly beautiful object, with a striking cover. It invites you to hold it, open it, mark all the passages that seem poignant, and there are a lot. The stylistic range Quin displays is impressive. Humorous, very personal, painful and real, it could easily function as a simulacrum of a writing course: in the stories, the author experiments with voice in familiar ways, but the ability to always be herself—through the adventures described—is a striking accomplishment.
The biggest limitation posed by my unawareness of her fiction is that I cannot add my opinion on whether or not this addition is one that is necessary. But this very unawareness also functions as an incentive to state that I am deeply intrigued by Quin as a writer, and I will certainly be delving into her novels. For this reason, I am the sort of reader who greatly needed the thoughtful introduction provided by Jennifer Hodgson to the entire selection. I actually might have even enjoyed having a brief note by Hodgson accompanying each story, though I comprehend how that might yield a cacophonic editorial verisimilitude.
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. The title comes from the penultimate story, one that is painful to read for anyone familiar with the inside workings of psych wards. In the eponymous story the voice changes from third to first person narration, in a fashion that reminds us how frequently our fictions are enriched by personal experiences. I recall two things from an extensive stay in an institution like the one described: my need to redefine myself as Mr. Congeniality to get out as fast as possible and a beloved friend’s sharp suggestion that whatever had led me there and the story unfolding at that moment ought to be a private one. The latter is why Quin’s Sandra—and then narrator— is so entrancing. She is revelatory, gives little space for the reader to idealize her and while she really wants to know when she can be discharged, she also does very little to perform Miss Congeniality.
Beyond “The Unmapped Country,” Quin’s voices are multiple, yet there are patterns in things that recur. One of the dominant ones is that of the second lover: being someone’s emotional “+1.” Again, from personal experience, I can attest that her thoughts, and more importantly her emotions, ring true. If the reader chooses a pointed point of view when reading “A Double Room,” she can find sharp humor in the discomfort of getting to sexual activity, and the future of the couple following the getaway. Will we still see each other after we get back, the narrator wonders, to have “I think not I mean it is impossible isn’t it you can see that” as the temporary answer, which eventually is overturned. (The “why” of the continuation is unrevealed, but if you, too, have been a third, you may know that “whys” are somewhat fatuous to thirds.)
Quin’s playfulness is courageous and marks a success regardless of the characters likability: it passes this ultimate test of female heroine/ anti-heroine duality. Perhaps genuine originality in any artistic medium functions as a discouraging paragon in making the work more broadly accessible. Still, if the goal of the author steers clear of textual density, is it truly artistic. Personally, I dislike some of the ultra-brief—often monosyllable—sentences, which read clumsily poetic in fiction. But I am fully persuaded that I want to read “Berg” and “Tripticks” now, Quin’s more fully-developed fiction works.
“It’s not how you live that matters it’s how you die that’s important,” Quin eloquently states in a wrong statement. Having committed suicide at the age of 37 might have given her control, but thankfully these additional writings were put together in this intriguing anthology. Depressing, hilarious and internety* way ahead of the internet, Quin’s writing documents a life that is rich in its curiosity and intellectual vigor. I have not taken so many notes on the sides of paper in a very long time, and so many pages made me believe that she had conceived of radically fresh ways to express even the ordinary.
*internety: inclusive of lists, tangents, pop-culture refs—of her time—, excessively revelatory leaning toward narcissistic, even paranoid.