Three is the second of the four brilliant and enigma-ridden novels that Ann Quin published before drowning off the coast of Brighton in 1973 at the age of thirty-seven. The mysterious character S—the absent protagonist or antiheroine hypotenuse of this love-triangle tale—dies in similar fashion … or perhaps she’s stabbed to death by a gang of nameless, faceless men before her body washes up onshore … or perhaps the stabbed dead body that washes up onshore is someone else… It’s difficult to tell. And the telling is difficult, too. And I would submit that it’s precisely these difficulties that make this gory story normal.
A British married couple, a dyad of faux-boho normies, provide the other two points of Three’s ménage. Their names are Ruth (sometimes Ruthey, sometimes just R) and Leonard (sometimes Leon, sometimes just L). They take up with this young woman referred to only as S, who comes to share their summer-vacation cottage and their lives, her family role ever-shifting from boarder-daughter to sister to lover.
The novel opens with the couple talking over the news of her recent death, in a conversation that flows unimpeded into the one-sided conversation of surveillance. S’s most salient remains are her journals and sundry recordings, both audio and film, which document her relationships with and impressions of R and L, who greedily read and listen to and binge-watch these artifacts in the dark and dreary mourning season that follows. In addition to these artifacts, whose contents seem constantly to rise toward narrative or plot, and then, like the tide, recede, R and L pore over their own diaries and compare their scribbled confessions with S’s: S had an abortion; R and L are trying, or claim they’re trying, to get pregnant. S had, or might have had, a drug habit; R and L prefer to lose themselves in drink, and so on. As this posthumous surveillance of S continues, R and L are themselves surveilled by stranger-neighbors, who are constantly poking their blossomed noses up against the glass.
Besides the fixed-state documents and recordings, the only constant in this world—in this over-upholstered world of inherited bric-a-brac, cats, goldfish, and tepid, tasteless suppers—seems to be confinement itself and the lack of privacy it inculcates. All else continues to change in rapid currents: the news, the anxieties, the social codes…
Because Three is such a frank and personal book, I will speak frankly and personally myself: like Ann Quin, and like her characters, I, too, have had problems with monogamy and realism—those two fantasies, those twinned delusions, of How to Live and Reproduce Life (monogamy) and How to Represent Life and Reproduce Its Representations (realism).
In Three, Quin tries to find solutions for these problems, or at least tries to dramatize the search for solutions, and it’s notable that she goes about doing so in opposite ways. Through S, she expands her couple into a throuple, but does so in prose that insistently contracts, in a vicious condensation of third-person description, internal monologue, and “interior”—house-bound—dialogue, none of which is isolated by conventional typography or punctuation. Instead of Victorian quotation marks or even Bloomsburyian dashes indicating speech, instead of paragraphs indicating shifts in point of view, here we have a jumble, all the modalities of the novel form set side by side like a hoarder’s secondhand sitting-room furniture. R’s speech, L’s speech, R’s writing, L’s writing, S’s firsthand documentation, Quin’s own sham-omniscient accounts all run into one another, verbiage bumping up against verbiage in a dim, narrow, junk-cluttered hall:
In the doorway he looked up, holding slippers and a book. What did you say? Boots—did you take them off before going in there? Yes yes. Still raining? Stopped. He went back into the room. She followed, picked up the cat placed his paws on her shoulders. How are your orchids? Not bad quite good really several almost seem to grow overnight but God knows what will happen to them while I’m away the boy’s so hopeless. Well I warned you didn’t I always the same you will take things on then regret the responsibility. That’s hardly the point Ruth anyway I’ve been thinking we could really spend more time down here than we do. I don’t mind the summer Leon but not the winter. Oh I don’t know can be quite cosy with all the fires going and you’re always saying how fed up you get with the parties and people in town. Yes I know but there are advantages I mean I have to see the specialist also I’ve been thinking of having an analyst. Oh not again Ruth we’ve tried all that and you know how bloody neurotic you get. But there’s a good one really quite near too anyway we’ll see.
The effect of this experiment, much like the effect of the open-relationship experiment, is to heighten the multiple claustral experiences on offer: the claustrophobia of monogamy, the claustrophobia of a cottage vacation; the stifling atmosphere of middle-class British domesticity that hasn’t yet gotten into the swing of the sixties; the stifling atmosphere of “the swinging sixties” itself, with its simultaneously entertained feelings of having gone too far and of not having gone far enough; the literal hothouse where L grows his orchids; the cramped kitchens and bathrooms and beds where R spends so much of her existence cooking, cleaning, grooming, and sleeping or trying to sleep, essentially nurturing herself or a figment of happy, successful coupledom in lieu of being able to nurture a happy, successful birth-child.
Quin’s “reproduction” of her characters’ artifacts represents perhaps her most daring attempt to break out of the straitening of both monogamy and realism. While the journal entries are presented in a fairly traditional manner—even poignantly traditional, with dates at top and discussions of weather—the nonwritten recordings, and the audio recordings in particular, are presented in a format that’s more poetry than prose, with the white space on the page made to represent silence or the hum of a tape reeling blank between utterances.
which R. and L. listen to separately
which they listen to separately-together
unlike the film recordings, which are contained by frames,
on the frameless voice “itself,”
on the rhythms of
the voice “herself” even when him,
a voice cigarette-and-booze-weakened,
hoarsened even when whispering,
and like the voices of the radio, and the voices of the characters reading the paper
aloud, they bring the news
the inner news as they break
with the breath and unspool into
sputter about, and I quote,
“Incidents dwelt on
dictates its own vocabulary.
I don’t want to overstay my welcome so as to third-wheel you and this book, so I’ll merely close with a brief comment on Three’s number. Three was a fascination of Quin’s. The number manifests throughout her work: in Three, of course, but also in her novel Passages, the stylistic heir to Three, and, even more explicitly, in her fourth and final published novel, Tripticks. Three is the trinity of Quin’s Catholic upbringing and the governing sum of space (three dimensions) and time (past, present, future). Three troubles the scales of dichotomous, guilt-and-innocence judgment and tips the dialectic. In classical psychoanalysis, we are told that our sex problems are always created through unhealthy binaries, either between ourselves and a mother, or between ourselves and a father, and never through the always healthier trinaries of other prospective sexual partners—people we might very much want to sleep with who might also very much want to sleep with us; people with whom we might not have affirmed our sole legal, ecclesiastical, and, some would say, patriarchal fidelities.
Classical logic exists in the binary, too, and as such it describes mechanistic perfection. By contrast, trinary (also called ternary) logic describes the messiness of being human. In trinary logic, a statement can either be True or False or some indeterminate, or indeterminable, third value: ??? Quin’s brief, bleak life coincided with the development of programmable or stored-memory computing, whose binary logic has since come to master our lives by lashing our pasts and futures together through the 1/0 digitization of all of our writings and recordings. In the sixties, trinary logic, which had no obvious computational or commercial applications, was primarily a mind game played by obscure academics who, tellingly, lacked a standard notation to express their fooling with triunity—as well as by Continental artists (Situationists) such as Guy Debord and Asger Jorn (do yourself a favor and google “triolectics”).
The origins of trinary logic are to be found in Aristotle and his famous proposal—apropos to a novel that devotes so much mind to beachside brutality—about a sea battle that will or will not happen tomorrow: “It is necessary for there to be or not be a sea-battle tomorrow; but it is not necessary for a sea-battle to take place tomorrow, nor for one not to take place—though it is necessary for one to take place or not to take place.” It’s with this statement that Aristotle cast free will into doubt and introduced the problem of future contingents: How can we say that we know that something that has not yet happened, will happen? Future violence by the tideline cannot be true, it cannot be false, it can only be contingent, possible or probable. Quin’s book is the acting out of this conundrum on a more relatable stage: our marriage will last forever; we will never sleep with other people; our sleeping with other people will never affect our marriage; we will always have all the sex we want; we will always want all the sex we have; S will kill herself; S will be killed by others; we will cause S to kill herself; we will never believe, or admit to each other that we believe, that we were the cause.
In our over-recorded, interminably reproducible, and self-interested age, S becomes a martyr. For nowadays there is nothing more rare and valuable and even holy than the unknown, the unknowable, the third-way open and forever contingent.
Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Moving Kings, Book of Numbers), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for the New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, n+1, the London Review of Books, The New Republic, and others. In 2017 he was named one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists. He lives in New York City.
Ann Quin’s Three, originally published in 1966 by Calder & Boyars, has been brought back into print by And Other Stories with a new introduction by Joshua Cohen. The new edition is published in the U.S. on November 10, 2020.