11 May 2006

Ticknor: A Novel

Ticknor: A Novel, Sheila Heti.

Because this was a nominee for the Spring 'Read This' at the LitBlog Coop, and because it was short, I picked up a copy of Ticknor recently and avoided reading any of the LBC posts until after I finished the book. I can't remember the last time it took me 4 days to read a 118 page book! And that should not recommend it. Heti's book is a tough trudge up a steep hill in inclement weather. I kept encouraging myself: "It's only 118 pages -- you can do this". But, 3 of the last 4 nights I either fell asleep or found myself wondering what I had just read on the previous few pages that I had to re-read before continuing. So, imagine my surprise when I turned the last page and thought: "Well, that wasn't so bad; I liked it a bit."

Heti's work is imaginative and bears little resemblance to the historical persons portrayed. Ticknor is a stream-of-consciousness tale about biographer George Ticknor and his friend historian William H. Prescott. But, it isn't historical fiction. Rather, it is a character study of Ticknor, a socially awkward, obsessive, flawed man consumed with jealousy over his friend's publishing successes, wealth and social standing. Ticknor even seems jealous over his friend's blindness, resentful of how Prescott adapts to and overcomes the fateful boyish prank that injured his eye. More than that though, Ticknor is consumed by his own inadequacies and anxieties.

Ticknor does not interact with any one in the book; the narrative takes place completely in his head. His disjointed internal monologue is so disruptive that it isn't surprising when he reveals that it took him 10 years to write an article. Ticknor's various trains of thought have him ruminating on how his friend's acquaintances won't acknowledge him, on Prescott's dislike for him, how Prescott's wife is horrified by his obvious (to him) lust for her, and his daydreams about how the wife might one day return his admiring glances. Yet, the description of his social ineptitude suggests that he would botch up any return of affection.

There isn't just one narrative point of view in the work, although all points of view are Ticknor's. The changing narrative voice is challenging, but contributes to the overall mood of the work. You want to shout "Turn off the voices in your head, George". Yet Heti's novel depends on that battering din.

You don't end up feeling much of anything but pity for poor George Ticknor, but only in a voyeuristic, 'won't someone help him so he won't be my problem?' sort of way. And this is why Heti's book works: it isn't about Ticknor's friendship with Prescott; it isn't success and failure or wealth and poverty; it is about inadequacies within Ticknor, his introspection and inaccurate observations that drive his actions and keeps him from interacting with others. And it is about the similar inadequacies within those who avoid him. Even the reader. The human condition: Ah Bartleby! Ah Humanity!

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