Ann Quin’s novel Passages collapses hierarchies of center and margin

Ann Quin’s third novel Passages (1969) ostensibly tells the story of an unnamed woman and unnamed man traveling through an unnamed country in search of the woman’s brother, who may or may not be dead.

The adverb ostensibly is necessary in the previous sentence, because Passages does not actually tell that story—or it rather tells that story only glancingly, obliquely, and incompletely. Nevertheless, that is the apparent “plot” of Passages.

Quin is more interested in fractured/fracturing voices here. Passages pushes against the strictures of the traditional novel, eschewing character and plot development in favor of pure (and polluted) perceptions. There’s something schizophrenic about the voices in Passages. Interior monologues turn polyglossic or implode into elliptical fragments.

Quin repeatedly refuses to let her readers know where they stand. Indeed, we’re never quite sure of even the novel’s setting, which seems to be somewhere in the Mediterranean. It’s full of light and sea and sand and poverty, and the “political situation” is grim. (The woman’s brother’s disappearance may or may not have something to do with the region’s political instability.)

Passage’s content might be too slippery to stick to any traditional frame, but Quin employs a rhetorical conceit that teaches her reader how to read her novel. The book breaks into four unnamed chapters, each around twenty-five pages long. The first and third chapters find us loose in the woman’s stream of consciousness. The second and fourth chapters take the form of the man’s personal journal. These sections contain marginal annotations, which might be meant to represent actual physical annotations, or perhaps mental annotations–the man’s stream of consciousness while he rereads his journal.

Quin’s rhetorical strategy pays off, particularly in the book’s Sadean climax. This (literal) climax occurs at a carnivalesque party in a strange mansion on a small island. We see the events first through the woman’s perception, and then through the man’s. But I’ve gone too long without offering any representative language. Here’s a passage from the woman’s section, just a few paragraphs before the climax. To set the stage a bit, simply know that the woman plays voyeur to a bizarre threesome:

Mirrors faced each other. As the two turned, approached. Slower in movement in the centre, either side of him, turning back in the opposite direction to their first movement. Contours of their shadows indistinct. The first mirror reflected in the second. The second in the first. Images within images. Smaller than the last, one inside the other. She lay on the floor, wrists tied together. She bent back over the chair. He raised the whip, flung into space.

Later, the man’s perception of events at the party both clarify and cloud the woman’s account. As you can see in the excerpt above, the woman frequently refuses to qualify her pronouns in a way that might stabilize identities for her reader. Such obfuscation often happens in the course of a sentence or two:

I ran on, knowing I was being followed. She came to the edge, jumped into expanding blueness, ultra violet tilted as she went towards the beach. We walked in silence.

The woman’s becomes a She and then merges into a We. The other half of that We is a He, the follower (“He later threw the bottle against the rocks”), but we soon realize that this He is not the male protagonist, but simply another He that the woman has taken as a one-time lover.

The woman frequently takes off somewhere to have sex with another man. At times the sex seems to be part of her quest to find her brother; other times it’s simply part of the novel’s dark, erotic tone. The man is undisturbed by his lover’s faithlessness. He is passive, depressive, and analytical, while she is manic and exuberant. Late in the novel he analyzes himself:

How many hours I waste lying in bed thinking about getting up. I see myself get up, go out, move, drink, eat, smile, turn, pay attention, talk, go up, go down. I am absent from that part, yet participating at the same time. A voyeur in all senses, in my actions, non-actions. What a delight it might be actually to get up without thinking, and then when dressed look back and still see myself curled up fast asleep under the blankets.

The man longs for a kind of split persona, an active agent to walk the world who can also gaze back at himself dormant, passive.

This motif of perception and observation echoes throughout Passages. Consider one of the man’s journal entries from early in the book:

Above, I used an image instead of text to give a sense of what the journal entries and their annotations look like. Here, the man’s annotation is a form of self-observation, self-analysis.

Other annotations dwell on describing myths or artifacts (often Greek or Talmudic). In a “December” entry, the man’s annotation is far lengthier than the text proper. The main entry reads:

I am on the verge of discovering my own demoniac possibilities and because of this I am conscious I am not alone with myself.

Again, we see the fracturing of identity, consciousness as ceaseless self-perception. The annotation is far more colorful in contrast:

An ancient tribe of the Kouretes were sorcerers and magicians. They invented statuary and discovered metals, and they were amphibious and of strange varieties of shape, some like demons, some like men, some like fishes, some like serpents, and some had no hands, some no feet, some had webs between their fingers like gees. They were blue-eyed and black-tailed. They perished struck down by the thunder of Zeus or by the arrows of Apollo.

Quin’s annotations dare her reader to make meaning—to put the fragments together in a way that might satisfy the traditional expectations we bring to a novel. But the meaning is always deferred, always slips away. Passages collapses notions of center and margin. As its title suggests, this is a novel about liminal people, liminal places.

The results are wonderfully frustrating. Passages is abject, even lurid at times, but also rich and even dazzling in moments, particularly in the woman’s chapters, which read like pure perception, untethered by traditional narrative expectations like causation, sequence, and chronology.

As such, Passages will not be every reader’s cup of tea. It lacks the sharp, grotesque humor of Quin’s first novel, Berg, and seems dead set at every angle to confound and even depress its readers. And yet there’s a wild possibility in Passages. In her introduction to the new edition of Passages recently published by And Other Stories, Claire-Louise Bennett tries to capture the feeling of reading Quin’s novel:

It’s difficult to describe — it’s almost like the omnipotent curiosity one burns with as an adolescent — sexual, solipsistic, melancholic, fierce, hungry, languorous — and without limit.

Bennett, whose anti-novel Pond bears the stamp of Quin’s influence, employs the right adjectives here. We could also add disorienting, challengingabject and even distressing. While clearly influenced by Joyce and Beckett, Quin’s writing in Passages seems closer to William Burroughs’s ventriloquism and the hollowed-out alienation of Anna Kavan’s early work. Passages also points towards the writing of Kathy Acker, Alasdair Gray, and João Gilberto Noll, among others. But it’s ultimately its own weird thing, and half a century after its initial publication it still seems ahead of its time. Passages is clearly Not For Everyone but I loved it. Recommended.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept first published this review in May, 2021. Quin’s fourth and final novel, Tripticks, is being reissued this month by And Other Stories.]

Ann Quin’s Tripticks (Book acquired, 15 Aug. 2022)

I’m a big fan of Ann Quin. Her last novel, Tripticks, is reissued this month from the good folks of And Other Stories. Here is their blurb:

First published in 1972, Ann Quin’s fourth and final novel was a radical break from the introspective style she had developed in Three and Passages: a declaration of independence from all expectations.

Brashly experimental, ribald, and hilarious, Tripticks maps new territories for the novel – aspiring to a form of pop art via the drawings of the artist Carol Annand and anticipating the genre-busting work of Kathy Acker through collage and gory satire.

Splattering its pages with the story of a man being chased across a nightmarish America by his ‘first X-wife’ and her ‘schoolboy gigolo’, Tripticks was ground zero for the collision of punk energy with high style.

And Other Stories seem to have preserved the original style of Tripticks—it has the look and feel of a punk zine—mimeographed, collage-oriented, pasted together: little surreal comic strips and Pop Art explosions juxtaposed against lists and riffs.

Here’s one of Carol Annand’s illustrations:

And a little list:

Read an excerpt here.

My review of Quin’s first novel Berg.

My review of Quin’s third novel Passages.

“The Suspect” — Tom Clark

A Hunting Scene — Piero di Cosimo

A Hunting Scene, c. 1494–1500 by Piero di Cosimo (1462–1522)

Microcosmos — Remedios Varo

Microcosmos, 1959 by Remedios Varo (1908-1963)

Chatleg 2 — Dieter Mammel

Chatleg 2, 2021 by Dieter Mammel (b. 1965)

Last Friday of no-school summer blog

Our air conditioner broke this week. Specifically, the fan motor broke, after a big power surge that left us without electricity for about six hours.

I read most of Fernanda Melchor’s novel Paradais (in Sophie Hughes’ translation) that day. While it’s not as rich and full (and really, just long) as her novel Hurricane Season, it’s cut from the same abject cloth. Two kids working towards becoming full-time alcoholics in an upscale development somewhere in Mexico ruin their lives. It’s a grimy glowing postmodern gothic, part of the Nothing Good Happens genre of what I think of as the Nothing Good Happens genre, reminiscent of Handke’s Funny Games, Bolaño’s myth crimes, and Nicolas Winding Refn’s neon romance terrors. Good stuff.

But our air conditioner is still broken, and school starts for the kids this Monday, and Florida is burning hot, like a lot of the northern hemisphere. It’s pretty bad! I taped foil to the skylights, where the infrared thermometer was hitting over a hundred today, even though it was cloudy. It’s likely that the twenties might offer some of the best years this century will yield,. Dour thought.

I had covid for a nice-not-nice chunk of July. I still have a cough from it, although I never got really sick. I went to the used bookstore maybe a week ago. It was the first place I went to after I recovered and cleared quarantine. I  picked up Vladimir Sorokin’s Ice “trilogy” (BroIce, and 23,000), in translation by Jame Gambrell. I also picked up a Vintage Contemporaries edition of Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine. I didn’t read those this week; I read Vladimir Sorokin’s Blue Lard (trans. Max Lawton), a true mindfuck, and Melchor’s Paradais. 

Some dirty motherfucker stabbed Salman Rushdie today. Antarctic heatwave. The US DOJ is investigating a former president of the United States of America for espionage related to selling nuclear secrets. I went to the bookstore again.

I picked up a thin novel published by New Directions, Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail, in translation by Elisabeth Jaquette. Here is ND’s jacket copy:

Minor Detail begins during the summer of 1949, one year after the war that the Palestinians mourn as the Nakba—the catastrophe that led to the displacement and exile of some 700,000 people—and the Israelis celebrate as the War of Independence. Israeli soldiers murder an encampment of Bedouin in the Negev desert, and among their victims they capture a Palestinian teenager and they rape her, kill her, and bury her in the sand.

Many years later, in the near-present day, a young woman in Ramallah tries to uncover some of the details surrounding this particular rape and murder, and becomes fascinated to the point of obsession, not only because of the nature of the crime, but because it was committed exactly twenty-five years to the day before she was born. Adania Shibli masterfully overlays these two translucent narratives of exactly the same length to evoke a present forever haunted by the past.

I ran into a former student today at the bookstore. Always feels good. So I guess I’ll end on that, a positive note, a little hope.

28 still frames from David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive

From Mulholland Drive, 2001. Directed by David Lynch with cinematography by Peter Deming. Via FilmGrab.

“The Hot Dog Factory (1937) — Grace Cavalieri

“The Hot Dog Factory (1937)”

by

Grace Cavalieri


Of course now children take it for granted but once
we watched boxes on a conveyor belt, sliding by,
magically filled and closed, packed and wrapped.
We couldn’t get enough of it, running alongside the machine.
In kindergarten Miss Haynes walked our class down
Stuyvesant Avenue, then up Prospect Street
to the hot dog factory. Only the girls got to go
as the boys were too wild.
We stood in line, wiggling with excitement as the man
talked about how they made hot dogs, then he handed us
one, and Jan dropped hers, so I broke mine in half.
This was the happiest day of our lives,
children whose mothers didn’t drive, and had nowhere
to go but school and home, to be taken to that street
to watch the glittering steel and shining rubber belts moving,
moving meats, readymade. I wish I could talk with Jan,
recalling the miracle and thrill of the hot dog factory,
when she was alive, before it all stopped—
bright lights, glistening motors, spinning wheels.

“Grateful Dead Tapes” — Ed Skoog

“Grateful Dead Tapes”

by

Ed Skoog


Even though we’ve already been dead,
when I find two trays of Grateful Dead tapes
in a Missoula secondhand store,
I too feel bound in the stasis of cassette,
plastic cases scarred and cracked
like old scuba goggles. Some retain
the delicate peg that lets the door swing open;
some have broken, maybe from a fall
when someone slid too fast the van door open
in a hot parking lot. Could be no tragedy
made the tapes secondhand greater
than a lost interest. Used to listen to them,
the owner might say, the way you adjust
to walking past a grave. I love him, or her,
who has curated these happenings, although
the Dead’s not really my bag. I follow
other melodies and injured visions, draw
my cider from another press, a cooler lava.
I saw them once, summer of ’95 at RFK,
with my friend Jax. It was terrible,
a lot of twentieth-century business came due
at once. Bob Dylan opened unintelligible
and sleepy as if reaching from the frost
to make known “in life I was Bob Dylan.”
The Dead would play five more stands:
Auburn Hills, Pittsburgh, Noblesville,
Maryland Heights, Chicago, then done,
those last shows, autobiographies of indulgence.
Lightning struck by a branch. We left early.
Tapers caught every note of the show.
You can hear it forever at archive.org.
In my greatest period of disorientation,
the Dead, like death, seemed best avoided.
Yet I was the sort who might admit
a simplifying affection like the Dead.
I remember, coming down in a cornfield
near a creek at dawn, talking it out with Jason
whether those trees were weird, or that
weirdness took the form of trees,
and every woman I pursued
had a pet cat that made me sneeze.
They either liked the Dead or Neil
Diamond. Yet I would persevere,
like one with a disorder, hanging
in the doorway to their petite kitchens
while they ground coffee, or searched
the crisper for a roommate’s hidden beer.
I longed to become more elaborate,
my approaches too simple and still are,
ask anyone about pleasure’s light opera
and the children’s music of the first kiss,
the hair metal of the second. And now
I play the Dead around the house.
It’s children’s music. We play operettas,
Pinafore, Penzance, for the same reasons,
because they are kind and almost meaningless.
I make few claims. What lasts is awkward
chance, like this thrift-store wrench
anthologized on pegboard, or smudges
on a yellow phone. I’m not buying
the tapes today. The price isn’t marked
and the clerk’s busy. I keep what marriage
and child need, a few books and held-back objects,
metal or paper, letters from old loves,
because letters are antique, and for
the limestone antiquity of those affections.

Heat — Florine Stettheimer

Heat, 1919 by Florine Stettheimer (1871-1944)

Salome — Adam Miller

Salome, 2021 by Adam Miller (b. 1979)

Perseus — Adam Miller

Perseus, 2021 by Adam Miller (b. 1979)

Vladimir Sorokin’s Their Four Hearts (Book acquired, 30 July 2022)

I ordered a copy of Vladimir Sorokin’s 1991 novel Their Four Hearts in translation by Max Lawton a couple of weeks ago when I was interviewing Max about his translation of Sorokin’s latest (in English), Telluria. In our discussion, Max told me,

I recommend any new reader of Sorokin to immediately chase TELLURIA with THEIR FOUR HEARTS: those two combined give something like a complete picture of the master at work.

Here’s the back copy, which Max might’ve written:

In many respects, Their Four Hearts is a book of endings and final things. Vladimir Sorokin wrote it in the year the Soviet Union collapsed and then didn’t write fiction for ten years after completing it––his next book being the infamous Blue Lard, which he wrote in 1998. Without exaggerating too much, one might call it the last book of the Russian twentieth century and Blue Lard the first book of the Russian twenty-first century. It is a novel about the failure of the Soviet Union, about its metaphysical designs, and about the violence it produced, but presented as God might see it or Bataille might write it.

Their Four Hearts follows the violent and nonsensical missions carried out by a group of four characters who represent Socialist Realist archetypes: Seryozha, a naive and optimistic young boy; Olga, a dedicated female athlete; Shtaube, a wise old man; and Rebrov, a factory worker and a Stakhanovite embodying Soviet manhood. However, the degradation inflicted upon them is hardly a Socialist Realist trope. Are the acts of violence they carry out a more realistic vision of what the Soviet Union forced its “heroes” to live out? A corporealization and desacralization of self-sacrificing acts of Soviet heroism? How the Soviet Union truly looked if you were to strip away the ideological infrastructure? As we see in the long monologues Shtaube performs for his companions––some of which are scatological nonsense and some of which are accurate reproductions of Soviet language––Sorokin is interested in burrowing down to the libidinal impulses that fuel a totalitarian system and forcing the reader to take part in them in a way that isn’t entirely devoid of aesthetic pleasure.

As presented alongside Greg Klassen’s brilliant charcoal illustrations, which have been compared to the work of Bruno Schulz by Alexander Genis and the work of Ralph Steadman as filtered through Francis Bacon by several gallerists, this angular work of fiction becomes a scatological storybook-world that the reader is dared to immerse themselves in.

And here’s one of Greg Klassen’s illustrations:

“Imagining Defeat” — David Berman

From Actual Air (Open City, 1999)

David Berman’s Nashville Mix

From The Minus Times #29, as republished in The Minus Times Collected. 

I made as much of the mix I could on Spotify. D.C.3’s second record The Good Hex isn’t on there but it is on YouTube. Here is David Berman’s “Nashville Mix” mixtape:

“The Parable of the Blind” — William Carlos Williams

“The Parable of the Blind”

by

William Carlos Williams


This horrible but superb painting
the parable of the blind
without a red

in the composition shows a group
of beggars leading
each other diagonally downward

across the canvas
from one side
to stumble finally into a bog

where the picture
and the composition ends back
of which no seeing man

is represented the unshaven
features of the des-
titute with their few

pitiful possessions a basin
to wash in a peasant
cottage is seen and a church spire

the faces are raised
as toward the light
there is no detail extraneous

to the composition one
follows the others stick in
hand triumphant to disaster