Saturday, June 26, 2010

Ticknor (Boldtype, 2006) by Mark Sarvas

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When George Ticknor's Life of William Hickling Prescott was published in 1864, it received rapturous notices, and reviewers were quick to point out that the long-standing friendship between Prescott and Ticknor made the latter an ideal Boswell. Sheila Heti, whose debut short story collection, The Middle Stories, was published in this country by McSweeney's, has pulled this obscure leaf from the literary archives and fashioned a mordantly funny anti-history; a pungent and hilarious study of bitterness and promise unfulfilled.

As a fretful Ticknor navigates his way through the rain-soaked streets of Boston to Prescott's house ("But I am not a late man. I hate to be late."), he recalls his decidedly one-sided lifelong friendship with his great subject, a friendship that Heti has estranged from its factual moorings. Unlike the real-life Ticknor, this one is an embittered also-ran, full of plans and intentions never realized — coveting his friend's wife, writing letters that never get answered, working on essays destined to be rejected — always alive to the fashionable whispers behind his back.

Heti seamlessly inhabits Ticknor's fussy 19th-century diction. It's a feat of virtuoso ventriloquism that puts one in mind of Kazuo Ishiguro's self-deluded butler Stephens in The Remains of the Day. It also raises fascinating questions about biographies and biographers (if this is how it was, what are we to make of Ticknor's glowing, laudatory Life?). Heti's Ticknor would be insufferable if he weren't so funny, and in the end, the black humor brings a leavening poignancy to this brief tale. But don't let the size fool you — this 109-page first novel is small but scarcely slight; it is as dense and textured as a truffle. And with George Ticknor, Heti adds an unforgettable new antihero to the Pantheon of the Misbegotten. Surely, Prufrock is smiling.

Ticknor (Geist) by Stephen Osborne

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Relief from the enumerative school of writing can be found in Sheila Heti’s first novel. Ticknor (Anansi) is written in the manner of the great narratives of eastern Europe and South America, of Kafka and Stevenson. Neither the subject nor the setting seems promising in the common way: George Ticknor, a troubled citizen of nineteenth-century Boston, prepares himself to attend a dinner party. Like the persons first and third in the pages of the Ryerson Review, Ticknor stands, watches, sits, looks and so on, but always in narrative mode, and so we are repeatedly engaged and taken into the story by the simplest of sentences: “I looked about me for a towel but all the towels were gone”; “I can see the bicycles tied to the poles and the drooping awnings and my soiled shoes.” Ticknor’s story is told by Ticknor himself, to himself, in a complex version of the first person that ren ders wonderfully the near-second person that we use when we talk to our­selves: “There was a woman I loved more than books, but she is gone … You loved first a drunk, second a woman who was deformed in the face. I have only ever loved hopeless women …” Another virtue of this novel is the absence of “authenticating” detail: here are none of the tiresome enumera tions used to fatten up the “historical” novels of recent seasons. The optic nerve is not in evidence in Ticknor, a book that calls out to us to read with our ears and not with our eyes, and proves that the art of narrative remains strong enough to take us any where at all.

Ticknor and Profile (, 2005) by Andrea Curtis

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There's an unusual poster gracing the hoardings and boarded-up buildings of Toronto the past few weeks. It's a grainy black-and-white image of five people of wildly different heights standing side by side in what looks like a police lineup. They've got the defiant, slightly bewildered look of street thugs who've been wrangled into showing up against their will. Most people who follow Canadian culture will recognize the unexpectedly short, frizzy-haired woman in the middle as international superauthor Margaret Atwood. But it's the other woman in the group that you can't keep your eyes off. Her thin arms ramrod straight, she's small like Atwood, though her extraordinary hat—which appears to have a tiny bird's nest perched on a pencil sticking out the top—puts her over the five-foot-six mark. 

The poster, it turns out, is the brainchild of celebrated small press House of Anansi, which is promoting five of its star authors as "NOT THE USUAL SUSPECTS." The petite, be-hatted woman is 28-year-old Sheila Heti, whose much-anticipated first novel, Ticknor, came out last week—much-anticipated because when she debuted with her strange and beguiling short story collection The Middle Stories in 2001, she was lauded as the Next Big Thing. Her stories appeared in Brick, Nerve, Toronto Life, This and a special boxed edition of McSweeney's;The Middle Stories was published in France, Germany, the Netherlands and the U.S. Trampoline Hall, the literary salon she created with friend Misha Glouberman, has become the unlikely toast of Toronto nightlife by having regular people hold forth on topics they have no expertise in.

In Canada, at least, that sort of exposure for a young writer gets certain media/literary types feeling huffy. Indeed, though reviews of The Middle Stories were mainly positive (if somewhat mystified by Heti's dream-like creations featuring, among other memorable characters, a giant, a mermaid and a woman who lives in a shoe), she is facing the release of her novel with some trepidation. "I have no idea what to expect about howTicknor will be received. I'm curious, of course. But I don't think anything could be stranger than the kind of suspicious tone to some of my previous reviews. It was a who-does-she-think-she-is kind of attitude," Heti explains on the phone from her apartment in Montreal, where she moved a month ago. "There's nothing more baffling than reading reviews saying, 'Why is Sheila Heti trying to annoy me?' As if I wrote The Middle Stories to alienate or irritate people."

She laughs at this. It's clearly absurd to her. But it's true her writing inspires strong reactions. The slow-simmeringTicknor will undoubtedly elicit some powerful responses of its own. Set in an imagined 19th-century Boston, the book tracks the tortured mental machinations of writer George Ticknor as he reluctantly heads to a dinner party held by his friend and fellow historian William Prescott. It's a tight, paranoid little journey Heti takes us on, her language mimicking both the Latinate backtracking of 19th-century writing and the push and pull of Ticknor's jealousy and admiration. The claustrophobic atmosphere this evokes and the novel's intentionally limited canvas—there is no plot to speak of and not a single moment when the characters interact with one another—manages to catapult the reader right into the writer's unhappy mind. It's a vivid, funny and often painful experience, as Ticknor catalogues the real or imagined slights paid to him: the dinners he's not invited to and the letters he wrote that his correspondents didn't bother keeping for posterity. "You were welcomed in," Ticknor recalls of evenings spent in the Prescott household, "but in the discomforting way of close families—at the end of the night they were never sad enough to see you go."

Heti discovered the real George Ticknor, a Harvard intellectual (1791-1871) known for his work on Spanish literature, several years ago when she stumbled across a book he published in 1863 called The Life of William Hickling Prescott. She was at The Green Room at the time, a rambling bar behind a theatre in Toronto's Annex neighbourhood. "I remember opening up this book, and there was a spark. I thought, 'Close it up, take it home with you,'" she remembers. "So I stole it and put it on my desk. I didn't open it for a while. Eventually I did, though I never read it all the way through. I used it more as an ink well, or a paint pot that I would dip into. There's a tremendous power in the book, and I responded to it the way you might be inexplicably struck by a person."

What hit Heti so viscerally was what was happening between the lines in Ticknor's biography: the total lack of scholarly detachment, and what she describes as the author's "weird lustiness for the minutae of Prescott's work." But she wasn't interested in writing a historical novel and purposely learned little about the real-life Ticknor or Prescott, who was famous for his histories of Mexico and Peru. She also avoided reading up on 19th-century Boston society and mischievously slips modern cues into the story (Ticknor misses a streetcar; his partying neighbours keep him up at night) so the reader's glare remains on the man's mind, not his historical milieu.

"I don't consider myself a storyteller like some other writers," Heti explains. "I'm more interested in the essence of the story. In crystallizing something, compacting it, making it so full of energy that it's powerful... I keep pressing my hands together as I say this. It was important to me that Ticknor didn't talk to anyone, for instance, that you don't see him interacting. There's a way in which when we are alone, we are our idea of ourselves. [When] we materialize in society, we become other people's idea. I didn't want Ticknor to act because I didn't want him to be revealed to himself."

He is plainly revealed to us, though, and the result is an intimate portrayal of a man whose intrigues, insecurities and petty jealousies could exist anywhere, from 19th-century Boston to, say, 21st-century Toronto. It's tempting, in fact, to read the novel as an indictment of such a hyper-examined world—a place, perhaps, where someone who stands out from the crowd, who you can't keep your eyes off, is also easy to cut down.

"We think of that 19th-century Boston world as so codified—but our world is coded, too," Heti explains, choosing her words deliberately. "There are all sorts of reasons why certain people are excluded and others aren't. There are very delicate things that hold a social world together. I wouldn't say this is a portrait of my social world. But I definitely put my world into it."

Ticknor (Ottawa Citizen, 2001) by Melanie Little


Heti toys with expectations of what a novel should do

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Sheila Heti garnered universal acclaim—along with swarms of enchanted readers—with her debut book, The Middle Stories. That book, a slim and elegant collection of fables, was quirky, sexy, dark and spare. Heti's followup, the novel Ticknor, is equally quirky, dark, and spare; but it is so superficially different from its predecessor that it may well confound many of her fans, particularly at first dip. No mermaids in jars or sad little dumplings have we here; the novel takes place almost entirely in the mind of its eponymous Victorian bachelor, a miserably lonely man with a life the size of a pea. And yet, as with The Middle Stories, there is a mesmeric quality to Heti's prose, and we are quickly drawn into the story, even as it continually frustrates our entrenched expectations of what a novel should do.

Ticknor was inspired by a book that Heti happened to pick up in a coffee shop: The Life of William Hickling Prescott by George Ticknor, published in 1863. Intrigued by the author's voice, she decided, by all accounts on the spot, to spirit it into her next book. Heti has previously referred to her writing technique as akin to sampling in music; in a few pieces in The Middle Stories, she incorporated quotes from other writers' journals and from works of non-fiction, weaving them quietly into her tales and referring to the borrowings only very subtly, in notes at the end of the book. She continues the technique in Ticknor, revealing, again in an endnote: "Certain phrases have been borrowed from (Ticknor's) book, and from several other writers, including Havelock Ellis, Sofia Tolstoy, Florence Nightengale, Marie Stopes, and possibly several others." This note provides a small taste of Heti's considerable authorial charm, of her deadpan blend of modesty and self-assurance.

Heti's confidence allows her to take risks, to play, in ways that few of her contemporaries do. Far from feeling bound by the historical reality of either Prescott or Ticknor, for example, she simply uses The Life as a springboard for her own, wholly separate work. In both books, Ticknor and Prescott are friends and schoolmates in 19th-century Boston; in both, too, Prescott goes on to become a highly successful historian. That, though, is where the similarities end. The factual Ticknor was married, a published author (obviously), and a Harvard professor. Heti's Ticknor, by contrast, is a spectacular failure at even the simplest of life's tasks, and has published, to his great chagrin, no books. He has, instead, laboured for 10 years on an article about canals, a subject which he admits holds no interest for him. The one constant in this Ticknor's life is his obsession with Prescott—he might as well be writing his biography—yet in Heti's version, Ticknor's observations about his friend are coloured by envy, resentment and frustrated desire.

Psychologically rich material, to be sure, but Ticknor is as disrespectful of its own story as it is of history. Ticknor is the most unreliable of unreliable narrators, slipping schizophrenically between the "I" and "you" modes, changing the very facts of his life constantly, even contradicting himself within the same sentences. The book's opening paragraph provides a good sampling of what we're in for: "There were no books when I was a boy. Books were hardly accessible, yet there were some books. That is why I did not develop literary taste. I read what I found and it was for fun. You read mostly for idle pleasure. I did not read for fun, nor was I cultivating my mind. I cannot imagine cultivating anything as a young boy. It is not my fault if I was not an erudite boy. Other boys had books and other boys had libraries. No, the whole country lacked books then."

The real sleight of hand is that Heti crafts a compelling, even moving novel out of all this. Her Ticknor is both absurd and grand in his small but relentless failures and his self-torturing fantasies of a normal life. Most of the narrative takes place on a walk (or perhaps several separate walks) in which Ticknor is making his way to Prescott's house for a party, a party that he has been both longing for and dreading for weeks. He has had great difficulty bathing and dressing. He is late and alternates between fearing that his friend will be angered by this lapse and suspecting that everyone would be happier if he didn't show up at all. He spends many moments cowering in the Prescott's garden with an ever-more-rain-soaked pie. In short, he works himself into such accesses of self-torment that he makes Hamlet seem as prevaricating as a puppy with a bone.

Prescott, by contrast, is the quintessential golden man of Victorian industry. He has composed serious works of history that win him accolades "on both sides of the Atlantic." He is an ideal husband and contributes to charity. He toils virtuously in the face of a painful debility, a near-blindness caused by being clocked in the eye with a projectile bun while at boarding school (a classic "stranger than fiction" detail taken, uniquely, straight from The Life).

And yet, Heti's Prescott may not be as perfect as he appears. We are given tantalizing hints. Is Prescott's treatment of Ticknor shabbily condescending, even cruel? Or is Ticknor an eminently deserving pariah, an appalling narcissist who lusts after his friend's wife and who, at the funeral of Prescott's father, can think only of the fact no one is talking to him? This question is the book's tenacious mystery; I'll leave it to you to decide whether it is ever really resolved.

Ticknor is a book that defies easy interpretation and even classification. It's neither serious nor comic, neither "straight" nor parodic, neither historical nor contemporary. It is a succession of shrewdly observed moments that do, ultimately, cohere into an experience that is no less affecting for being mysterious. Heti has proved once again that no matter how congested our literary byways become, she can be counted on to beat a path entirely her own.

Ticknor and Profile (University of Toronto magazine, 2005) by Micah Toub

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After years at the heart of Toronto's indie culture scene, author Sheila Heti is leaving town

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Sheila Heti has a way of making you feel as if you're the most interesting person in the room. She and I are waiting in line at Future Bakery & Café on Bloor Street where we've met to talk about her new novel, Ticknor, but already she's asking me all the questions. "How do you like freelance writing?" she inquires. "Who have you written for?"

When Heti's hot cider is ready and I've filled my mug with coffee, we find a place to sit, and I put a digital recorder on the table between us. I want to begin by asking Heti about the inspiration for her new book, but the miniature device catches her attention, and I soon find myself telling her about a creative project I'm involved in: recording voice messages from people on the street and posting the messages online. Her voice rises as the questions pour out. "Are people able to be free enough with themselves?" she wonders. "Do you use their full names?" "What are you calling the project?"

You expect writers—especially those who write fiction—to show an interest in people, but I sense that Heti, 28, makes a habit of investigating subjects until she's covered every conceivable angle. She seems to want to know everything, and would be just as happy not to talk about herself at all.

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You can find out a lot about Sheila Heti (BA 2002 Trinity) without asking her, thanks to a literary career that went public in 2000 when McSweeney's, a hip U.S. literary journal founded by American writer Dave Eggers, published five of her short stories. Heti was 23 at the time, and studying art history and philosophy at Trinity College. Her first book, The Middle Stories, was published the following year.

Looking back now, Heti says the spate of sudden attention was a little bewildering—and made her the target of some ill-mannered jealousy, mostly from the press. She felt many of the reviews of The Middle Stories focused on the buzz around the book and gave hardly any thought to the content. "It struck me as suffering from, if not jealousy, at least some kind of preoccupation with whatever degree of success they seemed to think I was having."

The Canadian literary community is extremely small, and many writers work for years without signing a publishing contract. So when someone new comes along and seems to achieve success too quickly, certain questions arise: about talent, about staying power, about owing one's success to someone else. Heti knows she hasMcSweeney's to thank for getting her noticed, and, indirectly, for her first book, but she became clearly tired of being asked about it. "I'm so lucky that it happened," she told an interviewer a few years ago. "But it's also like constantly being asked about your sister."

Before Heti was a published writer, and before NOW magazine readers voted her "best emerging author" for three of the past four years, she had little idea what she wanted to do with her life. After graduating from North Toronto High School, she thought it would be fun to write plays, so she enrolled at the National Theatre School in Montreal. 

During her first year, a stage adaptation she'd written of Faust was cancelled by her teachers. "They thought it was going to ruin my career," she says. The teachers never gave her any specific feedback, but Faust's love interest in her version was only 12 years old. "I think it left many of them feeling nauseated." Heti dropped out after that and moved back to Toronto, where she took a job in the editorial department at Shift magazine. Although she found the work enjoyable, she says the triviality of the assignments eventually wore her down. For one article, she recalls having to interview people who were obsessed with the heroine of The Little Mermaid. "She's a cartoon character!" Heti exclaims. "I felt like I had to study something real." So she went back to school.

At the University of Toronto, Heti spent a full semester studying Ulysses with Professor Jennifer Levine, who says Heti was fascinated by the idea of literature within literature. "Sheila was reading not to prove a preordained model in her head, but to think about the world." Levine enjoyed The Middle Stories and thinks Heti's writing echoes elements of Joyce. "Underlying their verbal games there is a powerful sympathetic imagination," Levine says. "Everyone is interesting. No one is boring."

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One day a few years ago, Heti was waiting for a friend at a downtown Toronto lounge, and randomly pulled a book—an old leather-bound volume—from one of the shelves. She began reading and was intrigued by the unique-ness of the writer's voice. "So I stole it," she says.

The book, published in 1864, was The Life of William Hickling Prescott, a biography by George Ticknor of his friend and fellow Harvard scholar William Prescott. It was Ticknor's voice—the style of his writing—that provided Heti with the inspiration for her new book and its central character. She explains that Ticknor wrote in an exceedingly reverent and formal style, leaving the reader to imagine what was going on between the lines. "I didn't want to write a historical novel. I was doing an impersonation," she says. "I wanted to know Ticknor through his voice—not through the details or narrative of his life."

The action in Heti's psychologically dense 108-page novel takes place over one night as Ticknor reluctantly makes his way to a party at Prescott's. As he walks along the cobbled streets of Boston, Ticknor wrestles with difficult personal questions: What does his friendship mean to Prescott? Why has he failed to become a great writer? Will he be missed should he forgo the party altogether?

In life, George Ticknor was a respected and influential professor of belles-lettres. Heti's Ticknor, however, is a paranoid, anxiety-ridden, failing writer who's jealous of his best friend Prescott, who is extroverted, often published and well loved—much like Heti's own public persona. I ask Heti whether there is also a Ticknor side to her personality, a hidden, anxious element that sometimes comes into conflict with her Prescott self. "I think that's a legitimate thing to say," she responds, but leaves it at that. Heti has never been the kind of author who likes to tell her readers what to think.

Ticknor is ostensibly set in mid-19th century Boston, but Heti deliberately drops clues to suggest otherwise. Streetcars rumble through the city, Ticknor wears rubber earplugs to block out noise from a neighbour's party, and he feels guilty about smoking—a decidedly modern-day phenomenon. Although the anachronisms are subtle, they're enough to make a careful reader realize that the story takes place somewhere other than in historical reality. "It doesn't take place in the history of America, but in the history of an attitude or a feeling," Heti explains.

Ticknor may not be historical fiction, but Heti used her subject as a starting point—literally. In writing the book, Heti often began by typing directly from the real Ticknor's own prose, using the beginnings of his sentences as fuel, and continuing on her own from there. Heti used a similar creative technique in writing The Middle Stories, where she would begin sentences without knowing how they would end. It's how she talks, too. She starts down one path, stops, then starts again on another. If you listen long enough, you can see how her ideas come into existence.

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Is everyone interesting? Heti seems to believe it. In The Middle Stories, her characters were often generically identified—the plumber, the middleman, the poet—but she infuses their lives with fantastical events. Similarly, in Ticknor, Heti delves into the mind of a man who thinks he is worthless, but in showing him attention, proves he's not. Heti tested the notion in real life by creating a venue for "average" people to speak publicly about the things they really care about. That venue is Trampoline Hall, a monthly lecture series held in a variety of Toronto bars, which Heti founded three years ago with her friend Misha Glouberman.

The people Heti asks to speak at Trampoline Hall are not really "experts" and often have never spoken in public. The lectures are not designed to inform or educate, though Heti hopes they do communicate something "truthful." And so Trampoline Hall audiences have listened to impassioned speeches about the number 32, why gossip is worse than pork, and how fantasy sports leagues allow men to be intimate without being personal. Heti would be the first to admit that the lectures are sometimes rough around the edges, but she says they are never boring.

For Heti, who arranged the speakers each month but has now handed responsibility for the whole enterprise to Glouberman, the series took on a social dimension. "I fall in love with people all the time," she says, "and Trampoline Hall was a way of doing something with them rather than just going out for coffee." In his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers describes a lattice—a figurative snowshoe—whose criss-crossing fibres are made up of the individual connections among people. The lattice gains strength every time two people connect, and if the network grows large enough, it can support anything. Trampoline Hall was Sheila Heti's lattice.

Now that her involvement with Trampoline Hall has ended, it's possible that the William Prescott phase of Heti's life is coming to a close, and the era of Ticknor—the reclusive writer—is beginning. "I'm quitting everything," she says. "I don't want anything that was in my life while I was writing this book to be in my life anymore." She says all her cultural activities from the last four years—Trampoline Hall; her impassioned articles about art in the public sphere; the biweekly cocktail parties that she and her husband, Globe and Mail music columnist Carl Wilson, held at their home in Toronto—share some indefinable quality that she wants to be done with now. She's even leaving the city, at least for a while, and she doesn't want to say where she's going next. She wants to disappear. "I don't want to know anybody," she says.

These days, people expect a lot from Heti, who is left with no time to do what is most important to her—write books. Along with reading and just simply thinking about things, Heti says she will have more time in her new city to indulge in her craft.

When we've drained our mugs and put on our coats, I walk Heti to her next appointment, which happens to be just around the corner, at the place she discovered Ticknor. As she opens the door to go in, I realize that whoever awaits her there will surely feel like the most extraordinary and exciting person in the room.

Ticknor (New York Sun, 2006) by Benjamin Lytal

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Sheila Heti's debut novel, Ticknor (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 128 pages, $18), has many appeals, all of them literary. The self-looping pleasures of a confused, modern narrator sit surprisingly well with the more sedate pleasures of the 19th-century setting.

Ms. Heti's narrator, Ticknor, is based on George Ticknor, a Boston Brahmin who, in the mid-19th century, founded the hitherto neglected study of Spanish Literature. The mind of Ms. Heti's narrower, fictional Ticknor bends not on Spain but on his childhood friend, W.H. Prescott, author of The Conquest of Mexico. The book's short narrative shuttles back and forth across a slim band of hope and resentment, sparked by Ticknor's ambivalence about his friend's mounting success. No matter how much Prescott suffers—the loss of his parents, apoplexy—he remains the congenial host, Ticknor the grudging guest. "His equanimity and cheerfulness are invincible," Ticknor concludes.

Ms. Heti, whose previous book of short stories was published in 2002 by McSweeney's, has here devised a narrative voice that alternates between the first and second persons. "I read what I found and it was for fun," Ticknor recalls of his childhood, only to rejoinder himself: "It is not my fault if I was not an erudite boy. Other boys had books and other boys had libraries." "No," he counters himself, "the whole country lacked books then."

This effect produces a warm, familial feeling; it reveals Ticknor mothering himself, divisively and tragically but also plausibly. A bachelor, he seems to be keeping himself company. The tones of the first and second persons are not simply encouraging or discouraging. They are in fact cooperative, making the same point, first frankly or cruelly and then with softened resignation.

"No one is eagerly awaiting you now," he says to himself, "Your arrival is not anticipated with any great longing." And in the first person, he agrees with his second self: "If I am late it will be nothing to anyone." When Ticknor qualifies his voice further, as if to avoid hurting a third party's feelings, he seems to have in mind Prescott himself, the source and the divine hearer of all his self-tutting.

However tedious this sounds in review, it is strong on the page. Ms. Heti also wields a broad time-spanning voice:

What is the point in pretending now? The world is as foursquare as my room. I left their walk and pulled myself through the rain-dark streets, so lost I forgot my name. When at last I looked up I found it all impassive and I stopped.

Along with the pop-song resolution of "What is the point in pretending?" and the very contemporary sound of "I found it all impassive," comes the Homeric "rain-dark streets" and the sound, conservative emphasis of "foursquare." Ticknor is one of the year's most enjoyable and formally impressive books.

Ticknor (Esquire, 2006) by Anna Godbersen

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Writers—it is unfortunate, but true—make great literary characters. They are hyper-aware but also deluded, full of self-regard but also self-loathing, talented but essentially useless, and embody any number of other fascinating and curious contradictions. Such, at any rate, is Ticknor, the fictitious riff on a historical person that gives Sheila Heti's second book title and voice.

Ticknor is an incantatory, old-timey panic attack of a story. (Sample sentence: "Had I left the house one minute earlier I would have caught the streetcar as it was moving away, or if the pie had been ready sooner, or if I had not made a pie at all, when you told me not to.") We first meet Ticknor as he tries to arrive at a dinner party given by his friends, the Prescotts, on a rainy, nineteenth-century Boston night; what follows is lots of virtuoso hand-wringing over a lifetime of bookish obsession. An author's note tells us that these characters were inspired by William Hickling Prescott and his biographer, George Ticknor, and indeed, our narrator knew Prescott in their school days and has followed the better man's career ever since with a heart full of resentment and self-pity. One man is gracious and successful ("always perfectly natural and gay, always talked unwillingly of his own troubles"), the other tetchy and touched by bad luck ("There is a certain smell that pervades my clothes and it is this that prevents opportunities from coming to me"). But, oh, his capacity to admire.

Ticknor seems at first little more than a darkly amusing monologue, but it is, in the end, a work brilliantly crafted to deliver its revelations and redemptions. It is stylish and slim, but original, and full of feeling.

Ticknor (San Francisco Chronicle, 2006) by Britt Peterson

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The art of stuffing very much into a small space has always seemed to come naturally to Sheila Heti, a former star of the Toronto literary scene (she has since relocated to Montreal) and acclaimed author of The Middle Stories. In those vignettes, several first published in McSweeney's, she paints strange, spacious worlds using only a fine-haired brush. The stories are compact, almost devoid of description, and yet in a piece such as "What Changed," Heti manages to pack the entire history of a relationship into about 1,000 words.

Now with her first novel, Ticknor, loosely based on the 19th century biography The Life of William Hickling Prescott by George Ticknor, Heti takes on an expanse of material from an expansive era, and compresses it into a tiny, postmodern diamond. The novel's main action involves Ticknor walking through 19th century Boston to a dinner party at Prescott's house, carrying a pie. The novel takes place entirely between Ticknor's ears, in a stream-of-consciousness conversation that flips back and forth between the first person and the second person, remonstrating, droning and anatomizing. Yet Heti manages to evoke the cavernous space of two giant egos, biographer and subject, and the novel rarely seems stifled.

Ticknor opens in the midst of one of the eponymous character's self-pitying rambles. "It is not my fault if I was not an erudite boy," he says to himself on the first page, as he walks through the rain, his pie on the verge of ruin. He is late and rehearses the excuses he will make, fearing at the same time that his lateness will not be noticed: "Your arrival is not anticipated with any great longing. Other men must hurry. If I am late it will mean nothing to anyone."

Pertinent facts tumble out, unlabeled, among the obsessive clutter. We learn that Ticknor has been in love, but not with the right kind of woman; he blames his lack of a wife, along with the lack of books in his childhood, for his literary insignificance. "To have only had a woman you could show off would have put you in the proper place." We hear uncollected bits of the story of his life-long friendship with Prescott, who rose to intellectual pre-eminence after many mishaps and trials, including the loss of his vision, and gradually left his old friend behind. We learn that Ticknor has spent some time in Europe and that when he returned, Prescott had cooled toward him. A mysterious character named Mary surfaces, a fallen woman who may or may not have been the mismatched love of Ticknor's life, and who certainly has had some improper connection with Prescott.

In other sections of the book, Ticknor describes Prescott's literary success in a tone that veers between resentment and fawning: "Not a day has gone by these past six weeks that a mention of his 'Conquest of Peru' or a rendering of his noble face has not appeared in an article, written up with importance in the daily papers." The narrative that emerges from these sections is typical for a 19th century biography, emphasizing Prescott's temperance and hard work, his intellectual companionship with other men and his faithfulness to his loving wife.

But when Ticknor recounts the humiliating treatment he faced at Prescott's hands, when Prescott kept him waiting for hours, refused to read the mediocre article he'd spent 10 years working on or displayed laughingly the evidence of an affair with Mary, Heti reveals the extent to which biography can be a labor of hate even more than of love.

Heti herself is performing a sort of biography, but it's the story of a consciousness rather than of a life. The plotlines in Ticknor, relating to both Ticknor's life and Prescott's, never quite merge, in the way one's own retelling of a traumatic event rarely comes out the same twice. Ticknor proposes several origins for the coolness between himself and Prescott, and his grasp of events seems compromised both by his desire to punish himself for his own weaknesses and by his need to justify them. As in life, this can have a frustrating effect, and Ticknor certainly functions better as a narrative on a second retelling.

In his telling of his own character, too, Ticknor is a complex and occasionally unlikable man. One anecdote describes Prescott's wife, Claire, serving dinner to Ticknor when, enamored with her beautiful bottom, he leers at her suggestively: "I made a seductive face, licking my lips and grinning so that a jolt came to her and she quickly hurried by me." But the reader's aversion is quickly tempered by recognition. Everyone has felt the embarrassment of an inadequate present, or stood wavering outside of a party, practicing things to say, wanting to be wanted but fearing rejection. Ticknor is as scattered, hypocritical and needy as any of us.

Throughout this complicated and often puzzling novel, Heti's touch is confident. She builds a memorable world inside the tiny space of Ticknor's anxious imagination, and we barely miss the air outside.

Ticknor (Harvard Review, 2006) by Nicole Lamy

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Torontonian Sheila Heti's first novel, Ticknor—a slim volume that confines itself entirely to the thoughts of a nineteenth-century bibliophile—is both utterly surprising and also exactly what one might expect from the author of a bewitching story collection and the founder of an eccentric lecture series. Heti's first book, The Middle Stories, published in the U.S. by the ever-quirky McSweeney's Books, reads like a collection of fairy tales for perverse adults. The stories are by turns bleak and witty, characterized by fantastical situations and matter-of-fact language.

Heti, however, has not confined her talents to the page. She has written for and performed in the theater, and as the founder of Trampoline Hall she has reached her widest audiences. The monthly lectures—in the tradition of literary salons of yore—are delivered by hipsters in smarty pants on subjects that fascinate them, but about which they are not experts. A recent event featured talks on such diverse subjects as "Bike Theft in Toronto," "Colorblindness," and "Songs That Get Stuck in Your Head."

Heti's offbeat intellectual pursuits have taken root in her debut novel, Ticknor, a fictionalized account of the real-life friendship between two intellectuals of the nineteenth century: historian William Hickling Prescott and his childhood companion and biographer, George Ticknor, a Harvard professor and a book collector. Heti's book, however, is most decidedly not a historical novel. By her own admission she appropriates the voice of George Ticknor, but doesn't sweat historical and biographical details.

As befits Heti's theatrical roots, Ticknor is delivered as an internal monologue or, really, dialogue between one neurotic man, George Ticknor, and himself. The novel is set on a dreary night in nineteenth-century Boston as Ticknor, late and bearing a sodden pie, makes his way to a dinner party hosted by his old friend William Prescott and his wife, Claire. That's not just the introduction; it's the whole story. Ticknor never makes it to the party. Nothing calamitous or even eventful happens along the way. Plots don't get much thinner than Ticknor's and yet the book—just over 100 pages—doesn't feel skimpy or even spare.

The space within the novel is filled with the spinning, paranoid thoughts of its narrator and antihero, Ticknor, on the subject that preoccupies him to the point of obsession: William Prescott. As the narrative shifts from first-person singular to second person and back again, it becomes clear that both points of view belong to one character. What takes shape is a kind of anti-romance in which Ticknor, envious of his friend, covets his career, his social ease, his wife: "Even if you had found a good woman, you would not have had as fine a life as Prescott, to whom everything comes so naturally, and before whom the whole world opens itself up, bestowing upon him all of God's gifts."

Readers are privy to every nuance of Ticknor's claustrophobic thoughts. Whether revisiting his career failings or personal disappointments, he equivocates, as though he were revising his autobiography in his head: "I am not a stunted man, though I am a difficult man. You have no difficulty with other people, and you cannot rightly say that your first and second loves were books. There was a woman I loved more than books, but now she is gone. I was not a favorite of girls, and I am still not favored among women. You loved first a drunk, second a woman who was deformed in the face. I have only ever loved hopeless women, which is surely what kept me from the highest circles."

Just when it seems that Ticknor's circular thoughts have led nowhere, that he's just a dog chasing his own tail, hints begin to pile up and a mystery takes shape: Could it be that Ticknor's neuroses are heightened by the guilt he feels over the childhood accident that cost his friend an eye? Heti is too subtle a writer to answer the question head-on, but by then intrigue has blanketed the story, coloring and darkening all the previous pages.

By all accounts the real Ticknor was nothing like the fictional one; he was a respected scholar whose devotion to books spawned a society that still meets today in his honor. What Heti has created in his fictional counterpart is not a monument or an idol but something more human and compelling—a flawed man trapped and shaped by the vagaries of history.

Ticknor (Eye Weekly, 2005) by Damian Rogers


Toronto author Sheila Heti's first novel reveals the necessary fragility of community

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Sheila Heti misses her friends and loved ones in Toronto—and there's a long list of them—but talking on the phone last week from Montreal, she was content to be staying in to make lentil soup, enthusiastic about her Marcella Hazan Italian cookbook and her newly acquired apartment, where she's sequestering herself to write. "It's your typical Montreal apartment, with hardwood floors and really high ceilings and moldings and big windows," she says. "There's a nice old fireplace that doesn't work and archways between the doors and a balcony—though I haven't stepped out on it yet—and French doors. It's pretty wild for something that I was able to find in one weekend and for $650. It's sort of perfect."

Heti clearly has a great love of perfection; the near mathematical precision of her work reflects a level of discipline and control of language that is considered unusual in younger writers. Now 28, her first collection of short fiction, The Middle Stories, was published when she was 24 to great acclaim by House of Anansi Press in Canada in the spring of 2001, and the word "wunderkind" appeared with extreme frequency in connection to her name. The Middle Stories was then published south of the border by the McSweeney's buzz-machine, and then translated into French, German and Dutch. Since that time, saying that Heti has kept busy is an understatement. She founded and curated the overwhelmingly successful Trampoline Hall lecture series. She hosted bi-weekly salon-style house parties with her husband, Globe and Mail music columnist Carl Wilson, who remains in Toronto. She wrote a musical called All Our Happy Days Are Stupid, with songs written by Destroyer's Dan Bejar, which Nightwood Theatre commissioned and will produce in the fall of next year (Chris Abraham is set to direct). She organized and participated in many lively community events that addressed local politics, such as the 2003 mayoral elections, as well as international issues, like the crisis in Darfur. She contributed a steady stream of stories, articles and editorials to various magazines and newspapers on subjects ranging from the psychology behind wearing vintage clothing to the integrity of public space. She has collaborated with countless writers, activists, artists and institutions. Oh yes, and she also wrote her first novel, Ticknor, which she is back in town this week to launch.

"It was the most social time in my life," she says of those last few years. "I can't believe how many people I knew and had interactions with.... It forces you in a way to be shallow, or if not shallow, at least dissatisfied in your interactions with people. It's a terrible feeling in a way, because people are worth more than that. But it's exciting too, to be a part of a community."

The concept of community is appropriately a central concern in Ticknor, a novel about a man who has incredibly mixed feelings about going to his buddy's house for a dinner party. The book explores the friendship between George Ticknor and William Hickling Prescott, two respected historians who lived and wrote in Boston during the mid-19th century. Heti discovered a copy of Ticknor's 1864 biography of Prescott in a Toronto bar and used it as a point of departure; while Ticknor appropriates Ticknor's voice and identity, the novel reimagines most of the details of their daily lives. While she captures a perfectly authentic and self-contained world, Heti says her research was more idiosyncratic than comprehensive; she boned up on the early birth-control movement, Wedgewood china and other whimsical subjects that caught her interest.

The story, told entirely through the interior monologue of an unstable narrator arguing with himself over the events of his own life, is a masterful and deeply felt inquiry into the minefield of human affection. The titular character displays a combination of profound loneliness, chronic insecurity and a desperate longing for a connection that he can never fully trust, making him a recognizable if unattractive Everyman. As he reluctantly makes his way to the home of his more successful friend, practicing excuses for his late arrival, he worries about the state of his clothes, the condition of the pie he is carrying and whether or not he has been invited out of love or obligation.

"With Ticknor, you don't know if he is a burden or if he's just one of the crowd," Heti says. "No one ever really knows that about themselves, perhaps. His big question about whether Prescott's affection for him is real, he suspects that there isn't any affection.... That kind of paranoia does sour your friendships. If you can't believe that anyone's affection for you is real, then your affection for them can't really be open at all."

Heti herself has clearly suffered a certain amount of social fatigue. "I think that part of the reason that I stopped Trampoline Hall when I finished Ticknor was that I didn't want to be in that world [after spending so much time] inside this man's head who finds the social world such a bore.... It was not a particularly pleasant experience." In Ticknor, while the character struggles endlessly to revise himself into an ideal, Heti reveals how our identities are intricately bound up in other people; since we can't shut off our anxieties about where we fit in relation to those around us, we can never really be alone.

Ticknor's emotional and introspective voice is in complete opposition to the detached tone of The Middle Stories, and many readers will find the two works strikingly different, though there are thematic bridges between them. In particular, the story "Mr. Jones's First Outing," about a man who re-enters society after spending months caring for his dying wife, also touches on the frustration felt in the face of stultifying social interactions, effectively highlighting how we spend so much of our lives caught up in empty and false exchanges with people who are little more than strangers. But both books suggest the hope, however faint, that individual moments of real intimacy can be achieved, often in the midst of grief and suffering. And both volumes certainly value brevity; at 109 pages, Ticknor is undeniably slim, though one could hardly call the dense work slight. Still, Heti is aware that for some, size does matter.

"It's not beans, you're not getting fewer beans," she says. "It's a misunderstanding of what a book gives you, because when you're done with the book, you have it in your head, it's not long or short, it just exists. What you want is something that you can carry around with you in your head. I often think if something is short and well shaped and kind of perfect, it just kind of sits there." And Ticknor feels like it is exactly the length it needs to be.

As for what Heti is currently carrying around in her head, it's too early to say. She plans to bunker down in Montreal for a serious stretch of time, reading and thinking and seeing what comes. When asked if she misses the bustle of her Toronto life, she says, "Not really. There are people who I love that I miss and that I want to have tea with or go to a movie with. I want to go to a movie with Carl tonight and just hang out. But for the most part I don't miss it. I'm pretty happy to be done with it for now." As for her plans for the evening, Heti has nothing more on her schedule than staying in and making that soup; she's been cooking a lot for herself lately.

"What else am I going to do?" she asks, laughing.

Ticknor (The National Post, 2005) by Frank Moher

There ought to be a genre for books too peculiar to squeeze into any of the existing literary cubbyholes. Granted, there is a term for such books—sui generis—but that's much too poncey for those of us without PhDs in English. Let's call them oddities.

Stephen Glass's novel that wasn't a novel, The Fabulist, about his infamous adventures as a liar, was an oddity. Jack Kerouac's On the Road was once an oddity (so much so that it prompted Truman Capote's famous remark that it wasn't even writing, just typing) but it spawned so many imitators that it quickly ceased to be one. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, I'd suggest, is an oddity.

And so is Sheila Heti's new, um, book, Ticknor. I suppose you could call it a novel—the book's jacket does—but anytime you get into supposing, you're probably dealing with an oddity. Which is by no means a bad thing: Ticknor is also charming and funny, with the courage of its eccentricities.

It purports to be the fevered musings of George Ticknor, a real-life 19th-century academic and biographer, presented here as a fussy bundle of underachievement and insecurity. That the actual Ticknor was, apparently, nothing of the sort, only adds to the book's playfulness—unless you're one of those stern types who thinks books about real people ought to have more than a toehold in the truth, in which case, we also recommend you avoid celebrity biographies.

Ticknor is best known (which is to say, hardly at all) for his biography of historian William H. Prescott.

This leads Heti to imagine him as a sort of B-list Boswell, bobbing along in the wake of the more-famous man, with the difference that Ticknor and Prescott have been friends since childhood; to the envious Ticknor, that's just adding insult to humiliation.

He's so beside himself that, as the book's narrator, he has taken to talking to himself: "I was not a favourite of girls, and I am still not favoured among women. You loved first a drunk, second a woman who was deformed in the face. I have only ever loved hopeless women, which is surely what has kept me from the highest circles."

As the book begins, Ticknor has been invited to a party at the home of Prescott and his (naturally) lovely wife to celebrate the publication of the historian's latest volume. What follows is his maddened internal dialogue as he makes his way through the rainy streets of Boston, pie in hand.

It is a small masterpiece of bile. Ticknor has somehow construed the invitation as an insult and takes the opportunity to review in fretful detail the course of his and Prescott's relationship, from the earliest stirrings of his friend's success, to its florid phase, to his own slow descent into wretchedness, working for 10 years on a single magazine article.

Heti has the style of the period down cold, though she acknowledges in an author's note that some of her phraseology comes from Ticknor himself "and perhaps several others." (Oh well, what are public-domain laws for?) And the story's ironies are as ornate as her prose.

The hated Prescott appears to be, in fact, a loyal buddy, albeit a distracted one. If Ticknor is otherwise friendless, it may have something to do with his inability to reciprocate even the smallest of social courtesies. As a hero, he is hopeless—a close second to some of Dostoyevsky's for pure stuntedness of character.

Still, Heti manages to generate considerable sympathy for him, as one might expect the author of such an odd book to do. His turning away from the door of the party and returning to his humble room, where "everything acknowledges my arrival," is a small, tentative act of self-assertion and a victory for isolates everywhere.

Forgive me, George Ticknor (the real George Ticknor, that is), but I ended up liking this altogether unfair, scurrilously inaccurate version of you—more, perhaps, than I might have liked you.

The world is quite a bit more interesting because of the inassimilable among us, and literature is more fun because of books like Ticknor. Even if we don't know what to call them.