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Quin Again and Other Stories

By Macdonald Daly.

quinagain

Ellis Sharp, Quin Again and Other Stories, Jetstone, 2015

When I edited Dead Iraqis: Selected Short Stories of Ellis Sharp in 2009, I assumed that Ellis Sharp had finished with the short story. It was where he had first made his unusual mark in the nineties, but by the new century his energy seemed entirely channelled into novels, short and long, four of which he has so far published. Indeed, I found nothing in his last book of short stories, Aria Fritta (2004), worthy of inclusion in the selection, and assumed there had been a definitive end, at that point, to any attempt he might make to encapsulate his fictional concerns in an abbreviated compass. Eleven years later, his sixth volume of short stories proves me wrong.

The Quin of “Quin Again”, the novella which occupies the second half of this volume, is the English experimental novelist Ann Quin, a writer almost as obscure and unknown as Sharp himself. But at first glance this 78-page seeming tombstone to Quin appears to put the collection into a state of obvious imbalance, casting a long and perhaps too substantial shadow over the fourteen much shorter stories which constitute the first half of the book. After To Wanstonia (1996), Sharp’s stories, in gatherings like Driving My Baby Back Home (1999), became much shorter, more squibbish, less prone to extending his particular obsessions into hilarious narratives with surreal, highly bizarre plots. The more lyrical, stream-of-consciousness dimension of his work came to the fore, in which the same riches of language were evident, but the deadly Swiftian irony of his finer earlier stories, not to say to the political satire which had become his trademark, seemed incapable of realisation in a diminished extent of four or five pages per story, often less.

Quin Again on first inspection threatens to be that kind of book until the reader realises that, if the name “Quin” is what unifies its second half, the first is also unified by a single character, who appears in nearly all of the shorter stories, and whose name is Douglas Elijah McMaster. We do not learn this “real” name, however, until “Ridiculous”, the third last story of the book. We first meet him under the moniker “Doodles”, an appellation which suggests his insignificance, his almost cartoon-like contours, his being a mere creation of the pen, his fictionality. In the first story, ironically called “Finished”, we learn of Doodles and Hazel and their erstwhile love, including some gritty details of their pastoral frolics, only to have all the apparent facts of the story denied within two pages. The authorial voice — which we read as that of an older Doodles — commandeers the narrative and explains that the details are false, imaginatively conjured out of his immediate writerly surroundings. He then seems to hear the voice of Hazel herself, travelling down the years, pointing out that he has mixed her up with a different ex-girlfriend (words which he then denies having heard as he peremptorily finishes both with the story and with her, a mere four pages in). Thus is a Gerontion-like narrative consciousness concisely established, in which past memories are elegiacally recalled, but in which memory and imagination cannot firmly be distinguished, and therefore in which the presentation of the realist “facts” of the stories is always subject to internal attack from the narrator’s ability to make things up, deny things, or rewrite them differently.

This narrator dominates most of the stories, and he is the teller of the Quin story too, a presence which binds both halves of the book together. In the second story, “The Writer”, a febrile Doodles, high on valium, goes on a walk which takes him around various points of London. This story too is broken-backed. It could end on its sixth page but the authorial voice again intrudes with a series of stern correctives, refuting with forensic precision many salient features of the events just described (including the valium-taking, which might otherwise have been realistically used to explain the discrepancies). He remarks bathetically, in conclusion, “But the route mapped out in this story is entirely accurate.” This narrator casts doubt on almost everything, and verisimilitude in these texts is consequently like a small island regularly pounded by the hurricanes and crashing waves of an unpredictable imagination. (“I haven’t had any verisimilitude for over two pages,” one character complains.)

The turn and endless return to language of experimental fiction can often feel claustrophobic compared to “classic” or realist writing. Some experimental writers really do seem to write as if there is nothing but language and puritanically purge their work of many available affective and narrative elements. The result often reads like the arid production of a skilled machine, as the constant refusal to permit the reader suspension of disbelief gives the text the property of wishing to deny the reader certain time-honoured and dominant aesthetic pleasures. I have always considered Sharp’s strength as a writer of fiction to derive from his unerring ability to deploy experimental techniques (in some cases inventing them) while never forgetting that fiction is not primarily read as a manual in post-structuralist linguistics. He used to ensure this, often, by the quite prosaic means of actually telling a story, though never straightforwardly. Every new narrative was also laced with wit and humour. There were clear political and moral values underpinning (and sometimes overwhelming) his writing too, and these gave the stories their snapping satirical bite.

Quin Again is the work of an older man. The politics and the humour are never far away, but they recede a little before the unifyingly mordant tone of someone recalling fragments of a life mostly gone, putting half-remembered past joys into a collage with dreams and fantasies and the sense of diminution experienced in the present. As the narrator tells us in one of the stories, the past tense is not only desirable, it is inevitable. (With typical contradictoriness, several of the stories are actually in the present tense.) There is an undeniably Proustian undertow of sadness and unfulfilled desire, but the writing keeps in check, with its expected vibrancy and verve, any propensities the reader may have for trite emotional indulgence. Sharp’s writing is tremendously urbane and erudite in style, and it never attempts to elicit sentiment. In effect, the mordant tone reaches for your bowels rather than your heart strings.

The shorter stories are, however, genuinely overshadowed by “Quin Again”, which further distinguishes itself from them by being punctuated, W. G. Sebald-like, with mostly desolating photographs of what appears to be an East Anglian coastal town in winter. (The real Ann Quin drowned herself in the sea off Brighton in 1973.) This long mosaic-like narrative appears to be written (at times at least) by someone claiming to be an old lover of Quin, shocked into renewed consideration of her by news of her death. But the story, which it would be nearly impossible to summarise, is in no sense really about Quin, nor is it homage. It is at once profoundly serious and somewhat haunting, yet also howlingly funny and screamingly parodic. It contains, for example, a brilliant spoof of John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, as well as a paragraph in which the reader must guess the words that have been deliberately omitted.

While Quin Again is technically a collection of short stories, its title story, also its longest by some measure, convinces me anew that Sharp’s centre of gravity is now definitively the novella or short novel. No short story of Sharp’s is ever likely to lack value, but since the publication of The Dump (1998) his investment of his creative gifts has been most rewarding in longer forms. “Quin Again”, at a guess, is necessarily coupled here with shorter pieces because it could not satisfactorily form a volume on its own. But it makes it clear that Ellis Sharp is less and less likely to paint miniatures.

Daly

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Macdonald Daly is Associate Professor in the Department of Culture, Film and Media at the University of Nottingham. He edited Dead Iraqis: Selected Short Stories of Ellis Sharp (Seattle: New Ventures, 2009) and is currently completing a book on BBC Radio 4 to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2016.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 13th, 2015.