Saturday, June 26, 2010

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.

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