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.

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