By Sheila Heti
House of Anansi,
109 pages, $19.95
Ticknor, Sheila Heti's slim, strange, ultimately convincing first novel, put me in mind of U.S. poet and critic Randall Jarrell's brief, odd definition of the novel as "a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it." He's not being snarky. He's talking about the impossibility of creating a perfect novel, the inherent imperfectability of the form. It's elastic, capable of reinvention, allowing room for idiosyncrasy.
Ticknor is idiosyncratic, if quite different in tone and conception from Heti's much-lauded first book, The Middle Stories, a collection of short, odd tales. Some of those were overtly fairy-tale-like. Most resembled fairy tales (or dreams) in their reliance, for their effect and their meaning, on action, on the concatenation of strange events. There was not a lot of introspection and meditation in the collection, but Ticknor has these qualities in abundance.
In Ticknor, we are deeply inside someone's head, ranging not so much through events as through warrens of mental rooms. The novel is fantastical, if less obviously so than some of the stories in The Middle Stories. Heti takes an early 19th-century figure, George Ticknor (1791-1871), a Boston intellectual, and creates a fictional character out of him, a character who may have little in common with his historical antecedent.
This isn't an easy novel to enter, although it rewards thought and rereading, and offers a finely cadenced voice, intelligence and intermittent moody beauty. The actual George Ticknor was a professor of Spanish literature at Harvard, married, socially active, successful and, it seems, instrumental in turning his friend William Prescott toward his study of Hispanic cultures, which resulted in Prescott's famed histories of Mexico, Peru and Phillip II of Spain. Ticknor himself penned an autobiography and a biography of Prescott, a copy of which provided Heti with her inspiration.
I don't think it matters whether Heti's Ticknor bears much resemblance to the historical Ticknor. Clearly, Heti is not interested in replicating history, although her narrator's voice is a perceptive act of ventriloquism, capturing something of the 19th-century diction of the actual Ticknor's writing. What seems to interest Heti most is the relationship between two writers, one a kind of inversion of the other. Ticknor is Boswell to Prescott's Johnson, who, in her version, is the far more successful of the two -- everything her Ticknor isn't -- generous, gregarious, married, productive, esteemed and yet reliant on the other to be immortalized in words. While it isn't a stated goal of Heti's Ticknor to write a biography of Prescott, the novel provides a ghostly alternative to the actual biography.
Like almost every contemporary first-person narrator, Ticknor is unreliable. He begins by declaring himself "an intimate friend" of Prescott, a bond forged since boyhood, but the nature of this relationship is constantly revised, as is his own status as a writer. That Ticknor is equivocating and ambivalent is signalled right from the opening, which switches between first- and second-person narration, leaving the reader (presumably intentionally) uncertain whether two characters are in contention or two versions of the same person:
"It would be better had I stayed home. If you had stayed home, how much better you would have felt. This is not a night to be out in the streets. Not for an old man. I am not quite so old. You had a mother but your mother is dead. When mother died, she just made up her mind and did it. She said she had nothing to live for, then reached out her hand to touch me. She missed."
The novel feels most lively when the narrative settles down a bit and fixes its attention on Prescott, a compellingly individuated presence, who espouses "the occupation with things, not self." (Perhaps the most outlandish thing about him comes straight out of history: As a young man, he was blinded in one eye by a crust of bread thrown in a college bun fight.)
The character of Ticknor remains (oddly) more familiar -- the envious, prevaricating, nonproductive writer who yearns for attention and fails to get it, while needle-sharp to every hint of rejection. (He claims to have written letters, though not many, and to have been working on a single article for 10 years, which he tries -- and fails -- to get Prescott to read, although he later declares the article itself to be a fabrication.) We see him make a failed attempt to go to the Prescotts' house for dinner, or more than one attempt. Even in its ostensible present, the novel dances about in time, and continually revises previous versions of events, which did leave me wishing there were one clear, forward-moving element in the book.
Perhaps one of the most appealing things about the novel is the seepage of our present day into the ostensible past. We are subject to a continual sense of dislocation. The author doesn't force her presence upon us, but she's there, a ghostly shadow behind her Ticknor, who (although born in 1791), worries about catching a streetcar, hangs his suit over the shower-curtain railing and puts in ear plugs to avoid the partying neighbours.
To engage with the past in fiction ought to be a way to create something new, and in a subtle, off-kilter way, Heti does, more through the texture of her imagined world than through narrative revelation.
Catherine Bush's most recent novels are The Rules of Engagement and Claire's Head.