THE NATURE OF ENVY
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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."