Andrew Kaufman has made a career of using magic and metaphor to shed some entertaining light on human truths and foibles. His sixth novel, The Ticking Heart, literally takes readers to new metaphorical territory. Set in the otherworldly city of Metaphoria, the novel tracks the emotional journey of Charlie Waterfield, a 43-year-old divorcé who is “lost inside the one thing it is impossible to escape: his own life.” It’s clear early on that, in the real world, Charlie is suffering from anxiety and depression. He isn’t happy about his separation from his ex-wife, Linda, and is floundering with Wanda, “the woman he was seeing and possibly in love with.”
On the night of his birthday, after an unfulfilling date with Wanda, Charlie gets into the backseat of an Uber and is confronted by a man in a hat coloured an “alarmingly bright purple that seemed to drift into the air like smoke.” The mystery man tells Charlie about the magical city of Metaphoria: “a city designed to trigger epiphanies” for people who are emotionally adrift. “Everything in Metaphoria is metaphorical,” says the man in the purple hat. “As if the entire city has been specifically constructed to poke you in the places you wish not to be poked.”
Soon Charlie is transported to Metaphoria in a puff of purple smoke, and thus begins his Scrooge-esque journey of confronting his own demons, fears, and insecurities. These take such forms as a jealous cyclops, a man with tree branches for arms, a chain-laden ghost that smells like rotting oranges, and one particularly coercive ex-lover who cuts Charlie’s heart out of his chest with a serrated knife and replaces it with a bomb. Our hero is given 24 hours to discover the metaphorical purpose of the human heart, or the bomb in his chest will explode.
There are times the novel feels like self-help disguised as fiction and because of the magical setting, it’s hard not to imagine the characters as animated cartoons. But like the city of Metaphoria itself, The Ticking Heart manages to use metaphor to encourage readers to consider the tangled mysteries of their own hearts – puffs of purple smoke not necessarily included.