Saturday, June 26, 2010

Ticknor (San Francisco Chronicle, 2006) by Britt Peterson

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The art of stuffing very much into a small space has always seemed to come naturally to Sheila Heti, a former star of the Toronto literary scene (she has since relocated to Montreal) and acclaimed author of The Middle Stories. In those vignettes, several first published in McSweeney's, she paints strange, spacious worlds using only a fine-haired brush. The stories are compact, almost devoid of description, and yet in a piece such as "What Changed," Heti manages to pack the entire history of a relationship into about 1,000 words.

Now with her first novel, Ticknor, loosely based on the 19th century biography The Life of William Hickling Prescott by George Ticknor, Heti takes on an expanse of material from an expansive era, and compresses it into a tiny, postmodern diamond. The novel's main action involves Ticknor walking through 19th century Boston to a dinner party at Prescott's house, carrying a pie. The novel takes place entirely between Ticknor's ears, in a stream-of-consciousness conversation that flips back and forth between the first person and the second person, remonstrating, droning and anatomizing. Yet Heti manages to evoke the cavernous space of two giant egos, biographer and subject, and the novel rarely seems stifled.

Ticknor opens in the midst of one of the eponymous character's self-pitying rambles. "It is not my fault if I was not an erudite boy," he says to himself on the first page, as he walks through the rain, his pie on the verge of ruin. He is late and rehearses the excuses he will make, fearing at the same time that his lateness will not be noticed: "Your arrival is not anticipated with any great longing. Other men must hurry. If I am late it will mean nothing to anyone."

Pertinent facts tumble out, unlabeled, among the obsessive clutter. We learn that Ticknor has been in love, but not with the right kind of woman; he blames his lack of a wife, along with the lack of books in his childhood, for his literary insignificance. "To have only had a woman you could show off would have put you in the proper place." We hear uncollected bits of the story of his life-long friendship with Prescott, who rose to intellectual pre-eminence after many mishaps and trials, including the loss of his vision, and gradually left his old friend behind. We learn that Ticknor has spent some time in Europe and that when he returned, Prescott had cooled toward him. A mysterious character named Mary surfaces, a fallen woman who may or may not have been the mismatched love of Ticknor's life, and who certainly has had some improper connection with Prescott.

In other sections of the book, Ticknor describes Prescott's literary success in a tone that veers between resentment and fawning: "Not a day has gone by these past six weeks that a mention of his 'Conquest of Peru' or a rendering of his noble face has not appeared in an article, written up with importance in the daily papers." The narrative that emerges from these sections is typical for a 19th century biography, emphasizing Prescott's temperance and hard work, his intellectual companionship with other men and his faithfulness to his loving wife.

But when Ticknor recounts the humiliating treatment he faced at Prescott's hands, when Prescott kept him waiting for hours, refused to read the mediocre article he'd spent 10 years working on or displayed laughingly the evidence of an affair with Mary, Heti reveals the extent to which biography can be a labor of hate even more than of love.

Heti herself is performing a sort of biography, but it's the story of a consciousness rather than of a life. The plotlines in Ticknor, relating to both Ticknor's life and Prescott's, never quite merge, in the way one's own retelling of a traumatic event rarely comes out the same twice. Ticknor proposes several origins for the coolness between himself and Prescott, and his grasp of events seems compromised both by his desire to punish himself for his own weaknesses and by his need to justify them. As in life, this can have a frustrating effect, and Ticknor certainly functions better as a narrative on a second retelling.

In his telling of his own character, too, Ticknor is a complex and occasionally unlikable man. One anecdote describes Prescott's wife, Claire, serving dinner to Ticknor when, enamored with her beautiful bottom, he leers at her suggestively: "I made a seductive face, licking my lips and grinning so that a jolt came to her and she quickly hurried by me." But the reader's aversion is quickly tempered by recognition. Everyone has felt the embarrassment of an inadequate present, or stood wavering outside of a party, practicing things to say, wanting to be wanted but fearing rejection. Ticknor is as scattered, hypocritical and needy as any of us.

Throughout this complicated and often puzzling novel, Heti's touch is confident. She builds a memorable world inside the tiny space of Ticknor's anxious imagination, and we barely miss the air outside.

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