The Feminist Novelist Who Turned “On the Road” on Its Head

In 1968, the British literary quarterly Ambit, under the editorial auspices of J. G. Ballard, Edwin Brock, and Martin Bax, ran an infamous competition for the best work written under the influence of drugs. Years later, in an interview for The Paris Review, Ballard recalled that, in terms of literary quality, “cannabis was the best stimulant, though some good pieces came out of LSD.” But “the best writing of all,” he went on, “was done by Ann Quin, under the influence of the contraceptive pill.” This winning story, “Tripticks”—the opening of Quin’s final novel, which she had started earlier that year—won publication in the magazine and a prize of £40 for its author. “Don’t laugh,” Quin wrote to her publisher, Marion Boyars, “but I’ve won a Drugs competition.” It’s a funny little anecdote, but it seems to me that this comic subversion of Ambit’s contest is also a preview of the more serious subversive work that Quin was doing in her book. For, just as Quin’s homage to her birth-control pills—Orthonovin 2, to be specific—deflates the romantic narrative of nineteen-sixties drug culture, “Tripticks,” Quin’s most pointedly satirical work, is a feminist anti-romance, anti-road novel of a distinctly disruptive sort.

Quin was born in the English seaside town of Brighton in 1936 and died in 1973, having walked into the water. According to one newspaper report, her body was found floating off the coast of nearby Shoreham, “dressed only in panties.” A fisherman had seen her strip down on a Brighton beach the night before. The article is brief—“Sea-Death Woman Was Brighton Writer,” it’s called—but it includes a black-and-white photograph of Quin, almost smiling beneath a dark pixie cut. “She wrote many books,” the article concludes, “including ‘Berg’ and ‘Three.’ ” In fact, at the time of her death, Quin had published four extraordinary and stylistically daring novels: “Berg” (1964), “Three” (1966), “Passages” (1969), and “Tripticks” (1972). She was only thirty-seven years old.

You can read about her early years in “Leaving School—XI,” an engaging autobiographical sketch included in 2018’s “The Unmapped Country: Stories & Fragments,” edited by Jennifer Hodgson. Quin’s version of her own story begins after her working-class mother packed her off to a convent school to rid her of a Sussex accent and transform her into “a lady.” In the convent, she felt trapped; she sensed the devil always near, “hiding in the folds of black gowns,” and she developed “a death wish and a sense of sin. Also a great lust to find out, experience what evil really was.” Naturally, she escaped to a public library to read: Dostoyevsky, Elizabethan drama, Hardy, Lawrence, Woolf. “The Waves,” she says, “made me aware of the possibilities in writing.” And how could it not? “The sun had not yet risen,” Woolf begins. “The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it. Gradually as the sky whitened a dark line lay on the horizon dividing the sea from the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes moving, one after another, beneath the surface, following each other, pursuing each other, perpetually.”

“Tripticks” chronicles a nameless narrator’s exploits as he drives across America pursuing his “No. 1 X-wife and her schoolboy gigolo”—or else the ex and her lover are pursuing him. Let’s just say that they’re following each other, perpetually, in Buicks and Chevrolets, back and forth across a dystopian U.S.A. The America that we find in Quin’s novel is a place of rampant consumerism, religious hypocrisy, gory violence, and New Age self-help bullshit. It’s also sex-mad, drug-addled, racist, and riddled with the language of advertising clichés. When we do glimpse the natural environment out a car or motel window, it is often almost terrifyingly beautiful, a not quite surreal prehistoric vastness of mesas and rock formations, “sheer walls of symmetrical blue grey basaltic columns” and “salt pools with crystals forming on their surfaces” and “bare broken peaks.” But any romance of the American West is always immediately cut through, chopped down, and pressed up against something else, like “6 packs of fridged beer” and a “U-Drive Inn,” or a “lead-filled baseball bat” and a “hanging tree.” Of course, the setting of any novel, no matter how experimental, is made out of nothing but words, but that truism feels somehow truer of “Tripticks.” Language is the landscape that we’re traversing in this book, a shifting vista of TV commercials, political rhetoric, sexual fantasy, and sand dunes. Language is what’s happening in here.

The most stylistically daring of all Quin’s stylistically daring books, “Tripticks” also marks a departure. If Quin serves as a literary bridge between Virginia Woolf and Kathy Acker—as she’s been described—then this is the book that gets her onto the Acker side of the canyon. Her three previous novels showcase a quieter psychological interiority. Here the prose is cacophonous and rude, fragmented by lists and quotations. Polyvocal yet monologic, often funny, creatively punctuated, it feels somehow both manic and static, and is, at times, so syntactically complex as to approach a ludic nonsense. In particular, much has been made of this book’s linguistic relationship to the cut-up methods of William S. Burroughs. There’s Ian Patterson, in the London Review of Books, noting that Quin used the techniques of “writers like Burroughs to create a fast-moving, jump-cutting, semi-absurd, road-trip quest narrative.” Meanwhile, Becca Rothfeld, in The New York Review of Books, points out that Quin rejected any suspected Burrovian influence, but concludes, “ ‘Tripticks’ reads like a machismo mash-up by William Burroughs.”

Personally, I read the book as a critique of machismo (Burrovian or otherwise). Machismo is self-romanticizing, after all, whereas everything about “Tripticks” reads like a subversion or parody of self-romance. We know, via the journalist John Hall, that Quin did rely on “cut-ups from Time, Life, television commercials and Yankee sex and criminology pulp” while writing “Tripticks.” Yet, just as the novel is a parodic takedown of nineteen-sixties American culture that both mocks and engages seriously with the material of that culture, so, too, does the book seem to simultaneously utilize the cut-up and to stand firmly outside the traditionally macho aesthetic with which it is associated. So, though “Tripticks” can be read in relation to Burroughs—or, in a different way, to Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” (another ostensibly drug-addled novel of the American “open road”)—the nature of its relationship to these American cultural touchstones is not straightforward. It’s worth noting that in 1961, in a letter to her friend Carol Burns, Quin wrote, “Simply hating ‘On the Road’—what a lot of sentimental rubbish and so tedious how it goes on and on in this phoney pseudo ‘isn’t life crazy but it’s life man’ sort of fashion.” Also worth noting: as Quin was writing “Tripticks,” she was reading Gertrude Stein.

Then there are the accompanying images, by the artist Carol Annand. Given the riotous linguistic performance of this book, it’s tempting to read its many illustrations for clues. Certainly I find myself reading in this way, looking back and forth between the images and text, hoping to find the one explicating the other. We’re trained to expect illustrations to do exactly this. But, although certain images here feel plainly illustrative, others seem only thematically related to the text’s over-all obsessions (maps, mesas, S & M), while still others come across as ambiguous or random (why so many gorillas?).

In “Blending Words with Pictures,” an interview with the writer Alan Burns, Annand explained that the text of “Tripticks” was already finished when she came on board to do the illustrations at Quin’s request. In fact, the book had already been accepted for publication, and so Annand had to fit her illustrations into an existing layout, hence images that frequently appear as footers, snuggled up against the pagination. This timing also likely explains why the book begins and ends with drawings, giving visual imagery both the first and final word. I’m especially interested in those closing panels: a hillside, a building, a rooftop. They don’t match Quin’s descriptions of the location of the novel’s climactic closing scenes, even though there’s also a rooftop involved in those shenanigans. Instead, Quin and Annand leave us with ambiguity, associative logic, more distance to cross. They leave us with collage, which, like so much in this book, relies for its effects on juxtaposition, a comedy of scale or tone, and an emphasis on messiness and chance. Annand, in that same interview, said that she “tried to make a visual narrative run parallel with Ann’s narrative.” But Quin’s is a narrative of disruption, quotation, and play; the images illustrate that as much as anything else.

In the end, “Tripticks” stands alone as Quin’s only image-text collaboration—or, at least, the only one she published. Why did she decide on illustrations for this work? Was it to introduce another voice not her own, to expand the polyphony of the encounter? Or for the experience of collaboration? Or to build into “Tripticks” a greater sense of the materiality that her text was already pursuing? For my part, I keep thinking back to that “drugs issue” of Ambit. If you look it up on the magazine’s Web site, you can flip through an old photographed copy priced at £40 (the same amount that Quin won in the contest). Scroll through to the first page of her story and you’ll see that the text appears on a recto, while facing it on the verso is a full page of inky black cartoonish drawings by an artist named Martin Leman. Perhaps Quin, having seen that spread, could never quite shake the playfully cacophonous energy of the image-text encounter.

In a piece on the Web site Quarterly Conversation, Jesse Kohn, thinking through the stylistic difference between “Tripticks” and Quin’s previous novels, writes, “As a writer with three books behind her, Quin seems as eager as the No 1. X-wife to blot out the memory of her previous cohort.” Quin “flees stylistically” in “Tripticks,” Kohn argues, turning to face her previous three works in the same way that our narrator “steer[s] his car towards the incensed trio of castrating X-wives.” It’s a neat idea—the fourth book bearing down on the earlier three like some sort of crazed mutineer—at least in part because it’s natural to think of “Tripticks” as Quin’s last stand, an end. In fact, Quin was working on a new novel when she died, and that work in progress, “The Unmapped Country,” shows her operating more in the mode of her previous books than in any new artistic space that “Tripticks” opened up. Rather than representing an entirely new and final direction, then, “Tripticks” is perhaps a wild U-turn, an outlier among outliers, Quin’s own rebel work. ♦

This essay has been drawn from “Tripticks,” which is out this month, from And Other Stories.

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