‘The Unmapped Country’ by Ann Quin

I owe the discovery of Quin to the conjunction of an interest in B.S. Johnson and an article by Lee Rourke, although as the editor of this collection, Jennifer Hodgson, has said, the  association of Quin – and other writers of the period – with Johnson may be loose at best. 

Better known, if known at all, for her debut novel Berg, the stories and fragments collected in The Unmapped Country show the work of a writer adept at a range of styles. The contents were written in the sixties and seventies, so certain details are necessarily of their time, but the writing itself feels intensely modern. 

In the titular story, Sandra finds herself in a psychiatric ward following a breakdown involving what sounds like a dissociative episode. Her lover, Clive, visits briefly and even then, only from a sense of duty. Sandra’s days are filled with interactions with the other residents and the doctors, with whom she is at odds, a situation made clear from the outset:

‘Good morning and how are we today?’
‘Bloody rotten if you must know.’
‘Why is that – tell me more?’
 Silence. Patient confronted psychiatrist. Woman and man.

Sandra’s antipathy is reasonable. In the ward her activities are scheduled like a schoolchild’s; the nursing staffs’ manner with her and the other patients is similarly infantilising and their prescribed treatment has damaged an essential part of her:

Once she had understood the language of birds, now no longer, it took all her time to understand her own language, and that of those who attempted communication… Had ECT done that – damn them?

As well as a critique of institutional care at the time, ‘The Unmapped Country’ is a model of what the short story can be: experimental yet accessible, funny and sad, everything and more. Quin herself once wrote to her publisher, ‘The short story medium is something new, exciting…’, much like the stories that make up this collection.

From The Unmapped Country, And Other Stories, 2018. ed. Jennifer Hodgson

‘Leaving School – XI’ by Ann Quin

Something of a cheat, this one, as it is a posthumous collection and one that the author knew nothing about. Oh, and that the opening story isn’t really a story at all, but an autobiographical fragment. But what a fragment, and what a collection! For this we should give thanks to the diligence and tenacity of Jennifer Hodgson

Collected in The Unmapped Country, And Other Stories, 2018

‘Never Trust a Man Who Bathes with His Fingernails’ by Ann Quin

Since her death in 1973 it has been really hard to get hold of Quin’s short pieces: credit for their reissue is down to Jennifer Hodgson, who also has an academic work on Quin in preparation. This is writing from the inside, which is to say that any superficial realism is only there to provide an arena where another, far subtler struggle is taking place, almost not articulated at all. In this story, An unspecified threat runs through the piece. As every event occurs, and there aren’t many, dangerous further possibilities appear without having been written. Death is never far from the action. I have already been sniffy about plot: there is a plot here, but it’s been messed with, as if parts of it (particularly the dénouement) had been excised. Good.

(1968; now in The Unmapped Country, due in 2018 from And Other Stories.)