PLAYING WITH WORDS
Heti toys with expectations of what a novel should do
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Sheila Heti garnered universal acclaim—along with swarms of enchanted readers—with her debut book, The Middle Stories. That book, a slim and elegant collection of fables, was quirky, sexy, dark and spare. Heti's followup, the novel Ticknor, is equally quirky, dark, and spare; but it is so superficially different from its predecessor that it may well confound many of her fans, particularly at first dip. No mermaids in jars or sad little dumplings have we here; the novel takes place almost entirely in the mind of its eponymous Victorian bachelor, a miserably lonely man with a life the size of a pea. And yet, as with The Middle Stories, there is a mesmeric quality to Heti's prose, and we are quickly drawn into the story, even as it continually frustrates our entrenched expectations of what a novel should do.
Ticknor was inspired by a book that Heti happened to pick up in a coffee shop: The Life of William Hickling Prescott by George Ticknor, published in 1863. Intrigued by the author's voice, she decided, by all accounts on the spot, to spirit it into her next book. Heti has previously referred to her writing technique as akin to sampling in music; in a few pieces in The Middle Stories, she incorporated quotes from other writers' journals and from works of non-fiction, weaving them quietly into her tales and referring to the borrowings only very subtly, in notes at the end of the book. She continues the technique in Ticknor, revealing, again in an endnote: "Certain phrases have been borrowed from (Ticknor's) book, and from several other writers, including Havelock Ellis, Sofia Tolstoy, Florence Nightengale, Marie Stopes, and possibly several others." This note provides a small taste of Heti's considerable authorial charm, of her deadpan blend of modesty and self-assurance.
Heti's confidence allows her to take risks, to play, in ways that few of her contemporaries do. Far from feeling bound by the historical reality of either Prescott or Ticknor, for example, she simply uses The Life as a springboard for her own, wholly separate work. In both books, Ticknor and Prescott are friends and schoolmates in 19th-century Boston; in both, too, Prescott goes on to become a highly successful historian. That, though, is where the similarities end. The factual Ticknor was married, a published author (obviously), and a Harvard professor. Heti's Ticknor, by contrast, is a spectacular failure at even the simplest of life's tasks, and has published, to his great chagrin, no books. He has, instead, laboured for 10 years on an article about canals, a subject which he admits holds no interest for him. The one constant in this Ticknor's life is his obsession with Prescott—he might as well be writing his biography—yet in Heti's version, Ticknor's observations about his friend are coloured by envy, resentment and frustrated desire.
Psychologically rich material, to be sure, but Ticknor is as disrespectful of its own story as it is of history. Ticknor is the most unreliable of unreliable narrators, slipping schizophrenically between the "I" and "you" modes, changing the very facts of his life constantly, even contradicting himself within the same sentences. The book's opening paragraph provides a good sampling of what we're in for: "There were no books when I was a boy. Books were hardly accessible, yet there were some books. That is why I did not develop literary taste. I read what I found and it was for fun. You read mostly for idle pleasure. I did not read for fun, nor was I cultivating my mind. I cannot imagine cultivating anything as a young boy. It is not my fault if I was not an erudite boy. Other boys had books and other boys had libraries. No, the whole country lacked books then."
The real sleight of hand is that Heti crafts a compelling, even moving novel out of all this. Her Ticknor is both absurd and grand in his small but relentless failures and his self-torturing fantasies of a normal life. Most of the narrative takes place on a walk (or perhaps several separate walks) in which Ticknor is making his way to Prescott's house for a party, a party that he has been both longing for and dreading for weeks. He has had great difficulty bathing and dressing. He is late and alternates between fearing that his friend will be angered by this lapse and suspecting that everyone would be happier if he didn't show up at all. He spends many moments cowering in the Prescott's garden with an ever-more-rain-soaked pie. In short, he works himself into such accesses of self-torment that he makes Hamlet seem as prevaricating as a puppy with a bone.
Prescott, by contrast, is the quintessential golden man of Victorian industry. He has composed serious works of history that win him accolades "on both sides of the Atlantic." He is an ideal husband and contributes to charity. He toils virtuously in the face of a painful debility, a near-blindness caused by being clocked in the eye with a projectile bun while at boarding school (a classic "stranger than fiction" detail taken, uniquely, straight from The Life).
And yet, Heti's Prescott may not be as perfect as he appears. We are given tantalizing hints. Is Prescott's treatment of Ticknor shabbily condescending, even cruel? Or is Ticknor an eminently deserving pariah, an appalling narcissist who lusts after his friend's wife and who, at the funeral of Prescott's father, can think only of the fact no one is talking to him? This question is the book's tenacious mystery; I'll leave it to you to decide whether it is ever really resolved.
Ticknor is a book that defies easy interpretation and even classification. It's neither serious nor comic, neither "straight" nor parodic, neither historical nor contemporary. It is a succession of shrewdly observed moments that do, ultimately, cohere into an experience that is no less affecting for being mysterious. Heti has proved once again that no matter how congested our literary byways become, she can be counted on to beat a path entirely her own.