Hippy love cults, drifters, and a native American: just some of the cast of characters you’ll meet on a journey through Ann Quin’s final novel Tripticks, published in 1972. Robert Shepherd, whose article on Quin appears in our recent issue of Postgraduate English, celebrates this little-known work as a tricky road trip whose time may finally have come.
Although it is fair to say that Ann Quin’s profile has risen somewhat in the last few years, she remains far from being a well-known literary figure. Born in Brighton in 1936, Quin had four novels published in her lifetime, Berg (1964), Three (1966), Passages (1969) and Tripticks (1972), with each eschewing narrative convention in increasingly complex ways. The year after the publication of Tripticks, in August 1973, Quin committed suicide, swimming out to sea by Brighton’s Palace Pier and drowning. She was 37.
Of all Quin’s novels, it is Berg that is best known and that critics tend to focus on. In many ways this is unsurprising, given the novel’s dark humour and vivid depiction of the murky underbelly of off-season Brighton. However, it is also the case that Berg – despite being clearly influenced by Alain Robbe-Grillet and the French nouveau roman – is the most conventional of Quin’s novels.
For this reason I would like to make the case for those interested in Quin to explore beyond Berg. While Three and Passages both have much to recommend them, I have a soft spot for Quin’s final novel. Like Berg, there is a dark seam of humour running through Tripticks, but while the earlier novel features a fraught oedipal drama, Quin’s final work offers the reader a withering critique of consumer capitalism and the mass media.
Tripticks’ plot, such as there is one, follows the journey of the novel’s unnamed narrator as he is pursued across late-sixties America by his ex-wife – or No.1 X-Wife as she is referred to throughout – and her new lover. The terms of this pursuit are vague and it is unclear at numerous junctures of the narrative exactly who is in pursuit of who. Furthermore, the reader is never entirely clear about the ultimate aim of this game of cat and mouse or, beyond the odd gnomic hint and tangential flashback, what inspired it in the first place.
To be honest, though, this narrative of pursuit is something of a MacGuffin. Instead, the novel is more interested in those moments that digress from its stated plot with the narrator encountering hippy love cults, drifters and a Native American, amongst others, on his circuitous journey. Yet even these physical encounters take on something of an ancillary quality in comparison to the extensive detours of memory (including much back story on No.1 X-Wife and her family of ballpoint pen magnates) and free association which frequently interrupt the action.
For example, having emerged from a visitor centre “into the blinding yellow light,” the narrator hears “a horse neighing.” The voice reminds him of his No.1 X-wife’s mother’s voice “above the wedding march,” drawing him off into a memory of the events of his wedding day. Not that this movement is clearly signposted. Instead, the following paragraph merely begins with the words “The bride wore a traditional long-sleeved full-length wedding dress,” as the narrator begins a lengthy recollection.
Such stream-of-consciousness digressions are, of course, par for the course in modernist narratives from Virginia Woolf to James Joyce, while, from Easy Rider to On the Road, the detour is frequently the point of the freedom and possibility that are codified in the ‘road trip’. Tripticks, however, re-orientates these tropes. Quin’s work does not offer a positive journey of self-discovery. Rather, the meanderings of her central character reflect how a person’s sense of identity might dissipate and dissolve under constant exposure to the mass media and the siren call of consumerism.
The text achieves this by first representing the environment through which the protagonist moves as essentially a construct of the media. Tripticks does not depict the natural, or even the built, environment in a naturalistic way. Instead the reader is confronted with an environment constituted of pop-cultural references, advertising billboards, radio broadcasts, televisual imagery and consumer goods. Early on in the novel the narrator might (punningly) talk about the “natural endowments” of a national park, but this is clearly itself a representation of the natural world seemingly relayed from the pages of a brochure or tourist information leaflet. This becomes clear in a passage that informs the reader that the park consists of “158,693 square miles, of which 1,890 square miles are water” and that “All outdoor sports are possible.”
Tripticks then dissolves the barrier between the narrator’s inner-life and this media-dominated environment. For Quin’s narrator the mass media is invasive, constantly taking over his thoughts and inserting themselves into his memories and experiences. The novel attempts to depict this process through use of William Burroughs’s cut-up technique, inserting text and imagery directly taken from the mass media (for example a story from a 1969 edition of Time Magazine) into the narrator’s stream-of-consciousness meanderings. No distinction is made between the narrator’s own words and those of the media and, in doing so, Quin’s novel cleverly demonstrates the insidious nature of such discourse and the way it colonises individual subjectivity. Perhaps the clearest example of this when the narrator relays how, following his marriage to No.1 X-Wife, he takes up a series of hobbies, including photography, fishing, pets and hypnotism. In each instance, though, his apparent motivation for each of these pursuits appears to merely be a blank reiteration of advertisements detailing the paraphernalia involved in each of these pastimes, for example, “Hypnotise self and others with the help of this fascinating record” or “Get away from the ‘picture perfect’ complex in your picture making.”
In its presentation of a character who becomes enmeshed in an unfeeling system that slowly erases his individuality, Quin’s text is very much of its time. One of Tripticks clear intertexts is Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man (1964), with its account of the manner in which the conditions of late modernity – consumerism, advertising and automisation – integrate individuals into the post-war capitalist system. Similarly, there is something of Guy Debord, author of The Society of the Spectacle (1967), in the way Quin appropriates and subverts the mass media’s detritus.
Today, in an age when new kinds of media and mass communication have inserted themselves into our daily lives in intense ways that would have been inconceivable in the late sixties and early seventies, Tripticks remains even more relevant.
Consequently, while Tripticks is never going to be a book that I would suggest as a bit of light bedtime reading, it is a novel that needs to be rediscovered and read more widely. The novel raises important questions about the ways in which the media structures reality, its connections with mass consumption, and the insidious and invasive nature of its discourse. Furthermore, once a reader overcomes the initial difficulty of negotiating the text, the power of Quin’s prose becomes clear. There is, in the final analysis, something really quite dazzling about the way Tripticks takes the barrage of mass media language that forms such a ubiquitous aspect of modern life and retools it to make it so ferociously comment back upon itself.
Robert Shepherd’s article Rhizomatic Maps and Arboreal Tracings: The Atrocity Exhibition, Tripticks and the Mass Media is available to download now from our Postgraduate English journal.