LIFE IS OTHER PEOPLE
Toronto author Sheila Heti's first novel reveals the necessary fragility of community
- - - -
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.