Triptych is, ostensibly, three short stories. In one, a young girl drowns; in another we witness an unhappy marriage; the third deals with a woman who is somehow involved in an incident at a summer seaside resort. However, although the work is divided into three, divisions do not mark separate stories or sequences, but instead divide the piece as if it were the triptych of the title – panels focusing on different parts of three stories interwoven into the same, ongoing narrative.
Simon is especially concerned with life and death, and in Triptych he explicitly links sex with death and young life with decay in a highly eroticised narrative, filled with sexual imagery and metaphors. Children play by a river, spying on furtive sex acts in a barn; an old woman kills a rabbit in an almost ritualistic manner, leaving the body on a kitchen table; a little girl strays too close to a river bank and we later see the servant girl who was meant to look after her distraught. A marriage begins to fail not long after it has begun; an older woman, no longer as influential as she once was, persuades a former acquaintance to help her through seduction.
Simon’s overall metaphor does not just employ painting, but cinema and other performance mediums. Different strands of the stories are woven together, shifting from one tableau to the next in a non-linear fashion. The story with the little girl follows several characters at different points in the same rural setting, like a detailed landscape painting or engraving; the resort story focuses almost entirely on a woman lying naked on a bed, akin to a detailed, intimate portrait, photograph or film still; the bridegroom’s stag night and what appears to be a disastrous wedding night is viewed like a series of out of sequence filmed scenes. Simon takes the metaphor further by presenting scenes as if they were unnaturally frozen celluloid images and deliberately blurs the line between the constructed cinematic image and reality, participants and spectators – for example, the circus scenes – full of heightened theatricality and ridiculousness, watched by a laughing audience in the dark, and the audience leaving from a cinema at the end. In Triptych, the novel form becomes like film, thus taking Simon’s sensibilities and style as a Nouveau Romancier further – events are seen by the mind like film inside a projector, focused on in detail, moved out of sequence like separate stills.