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Ellis Sharp: Quin Again

The subtitle of this book is and other stories but I do not think that I would consider this book as a book of stories, not least because nearly all of them are about the same character, Elijah Doodles McMaster. There are a couple about a character called Douglas Moog who seems to be the same person as Doodles. The final and, by far, the longest story concerns Clifford Tollinger, the protagonist of To Wetumpka, who may or may not be the same character as Moog and McMaster or one or more of them may be an alter ego of Sharp or… Well, with Sharp, who knows? It probably does not matter.

The stories about Moog/McMaster are primarily about his not very successful love life and his wanderings around London and elsewhere in the UK. We start off with Doodles with his girlfriend, Hazel, in Scotland. The chapter ends with She had finished with him and he had finished with her, not least because they disagree over his drug use and politics (he claims to be very left-wing). Loretta is, apparently, killed by a jellyfish. He wants Janine but she seems to prefer the bald man at the party. He even meets Julie Wohryzek, Kafka’s second girlfriend, who was murdered at Auschwitz in 1944. (Clifford Tollinger will later call one of his girlfriends Milena, presumably after Milena Jesenská, Kafka’s third girlfriend.)

As we might expect with Sharp, Moog/McMaster’s view of the world is a bleak one, not helped by his regular use of drugs and alcohol and his not very successful personal or professional life. Like other protagonists of Sharp’s book, he has issues with his father. In short, he is not a happy man. He appears or, at least, claims to be a writer. He goes to the British Library Reading Room to apply for a reading card and is initially rejected. However, when he says that he is a published writer (author of The Syrian Zip, a pseudo-Da Vinci Code-type novel), the librarian became obsequious and he gets his card. He then goes to read what he says is the rarest book in the world. (This is generally agreed to be the Gutenberg Bible, of which the British Library owns two copies but, as there are forty-six copies of the Gutenberg Bible extant, it probably is not the rarest. There are disputes as to what is.)

We follow McMaster/Moog over a period of time which Sharp sometimes indicates by year and sometimes by cultural icons, such as McMaster/Moog’s favorite book, film, drug and so on, leaving us to guess what year that might be. Another guessing game we have to play is Spot the Disaster. He mentions various disasters, sometimes only giving us clues. For example, he mentions the Kings Cross fire without mentioning either Kings Cross or fire (he focusses on the people being asphyxiated). The 7/7 attacks and Princess Diana’s death are two others he mentions. It all ends (This is where it ends, comrades and friends), with a series of rhymes: The dentistry and the sophistry. Dynamite banana and Futurama. Bloody feuds and posturing dudes. Cough syrup brands and punk rock bands and many more.

At this point, things change,as the final story, called Quin Again, is narrated by Cliff Tollinger and is by far the longest story in the book. Quin is Ann Quin, the novelist who killed herself. Tollinger, like McMaster/Moog, has romantic problems. At the beginning of the story, he is with Vee (we later learn that her full name is Veronika Freie) but she realises she is a Lesbian and is now living with her Lesbian lover near Nice. He lives in a dingy resort (again, not named but we can work out that it is Cromer, about which he is as complimentary as he was of nearby Lowestoft in To Wetumpka.) He seems to be having psychiatric problems and feels that the people of the town are like the people of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (again not named), i.e. totally conformist and obedient. However, the main aspect of this story is his nature with the imaginary Ann Quin. He learns at the beginning of the story (from Vee) that she has died and he then continues an imaginary relationship with her, sexual, intellectual and adulatory. At one point, pursued by the police, he flees to Scotland, where he is chased by a helicopter. He spends the night outside and then, down by the loch, bumps into someone who turns out to be Ann Quin and she hides him from the police. However, in the meantime, I wait for Quin and death.

Of course, it is a strange novel/collection of stories. It is written by Ellis Sharp. However, it is once again a thoroughly original piece of work and one that shows the chaos, the insanity and the grimness of life, while paying homage (albeit in a somewhat unusual way) to a forgotten author. Sharp is not going to make it easy for his readers but he is going to give us another excellent book to read and think about.

Publishing history

First published 2015 by Jetstone