Saturday, June 26, 2010

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.

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