Saturday, June 26, 2010

Ticknor (New York Sun, 2006) by Benjamin Lytal

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Sheila Heti's debut novel, Ticknor (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 128 pages, $18), has many appeals, all of them literary. The self-looping pleasures of a confused, modern narrator sit surprisingly well with the more sedate pleasures of the 19th-century setting.

Ms. Heti's narrator, Ticknor, is based on George Ticknor, a Boston Brahmin who, in the mid-19th century, founded the hitherto neglected study of Spanish Literature. The mind of Ms. Heti's narrower, fictional Ticknor bends not on Spain but on his childhood friend, W.H. Prescott, author of The Conquest of Mexico. The book's short narrative shuttles back and forth across a slim band of hope and resentment, sparked by Ticknor's ambivalence about his friend's mounting success. No matter how much Prescott suffers—the loss of his parents, apoplexy—he remains the congenial host, Ticknor the grudging guest. "His equanimity and cheerfulness are invincible," Ticknor concludes.

Ms. Heti, whose previous book of short stories was published in 2002 by McSweeney's, has here devised a narrative voice that alternates between the first and second persons. "I read what I found and it was for fun," Ticknor recalls of his childhood, only to rejoinder himself: "It is not my fault if I was not an erudite boy. Other boys had books and other boys had libraries." "No," he counters himself, "the whole country lacked books then."

This effect produces a warm, familial feeling; it reveals Ticknor mothering himself, divisively and tragically but also plausibly. A bachelor, he seems to be keeping himself company. The tones of the first and second persons are not simply encouraging or discouraging. They are in fact cooperative, making the same point, first frankly or cruelly and then with softened resignation.

"No one is eagerly awaiting you now," he says to himself, "Your arrival is not anticipated with any great longing." And in the first person, he agrees with his second self: "If I am late it will be nothing to anyone." When Ticknor qualifies his voice further, as if to avoid hurting a third party's feelings, he seems to have in mind Prescott himself, the source and the divine hearer of all his self-tutting.

However tedious this sounds in review, it is strong on the page. Ms. Heti also wields a broad time-spanning voice:

What is the point in pretending now? The world is as foursquare as my room. I left their walk and pulled myself through the rain-dark streets, so lost I forgot my name. When at last I looked up I found it all impassive and I stopped.

Along with the pop-song resolution of "What is the point in pretending?" and the very contemporary sound of "I found it all impassive," comes the Homeric "rain-dark streets" and the sound, conservative emphasis of "foursquare." Ticknor is one of the year's most enjoyable and formally impressive books.

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