Saturday, June 26, 2010

Ticknor (Esquire, 2006) by Anna Godbersen

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Writers—it is unfortunate, but true—make great literary characters. They are hyper-aware but also deluded, full of self-regard but also self-loathing, talented but essentially useless, and embody any number of other fascinating and curious contradictions. Such, at any rate, is Ticknor, the fictitious riff on a historical person that gives Sheila Heti's second book title and voice.

Ticknor is an incantatory, old-timey panic attack of a story. (Sample sentence: "Had I left the house one minute earlier I would have caught the streetcar as it was moving away, or if the pie had been ready sooner, or if I had not made a pie at all, when you told me not to.") We first meet Ticknor as he tries to arrive at a dinner party given by his friends, the Prescotts, on a rainy, nineteenth-century Boston night; what follows is lots of virtuoso hand-wringing over a lifetime of bookish obsession. An author's note tells us that these characters were inspired by William Hickling Prescott and his biographer, George Ticknor, and indeed, our narrator knew Prescott in their school days and has followed the better man's career ever since with a heart full of resentment and self-pity. One man is gracious and successful ("always perfectly natural and gay, always talked unwillingly of his own troubles"), the other tetchy and touched by bad luck ("There is a certain smell that pervades my clothes and it is this that prevents opportunities from coming to me"). But, oh, his capacity to admire.

Ticknor seems at first little more than a darkly amusing monologue, but it is, in the end, a work brilliantly crafted to deliver its revelations and redemptions. It is stylish and slim, but original, and full of feeling.

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