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Ticknor

by Sheila Heti

Sheila Heti’s first book, the strong, surrealistic The Middle Stories, got a big promotional push from its publisher, Anansi. This was in part because a few of Heti’s stories had appeared in a trendy American magazine (McSweeney’s) and she was thus deemed to be the next big thing in Canadian literature.

The book, a collection of Brothers Grimm-like fairy tales as remixed by Kafka, was widely reviewed in Canada, garnering respectable, if not ecstatic, notices. Many commentators adopted a wait-and-see attitude regarding the author’s merits. Yes, the stories were well written, but they were also somewhat slight, painfully dark, and – against the backdrop of mainstream Canadian realism – confoundedly strange. Several reviewers chose to wait for a follow-up before passing judgment.

Well, the follow-up novel has now arrived, and I can helpfully tell you that it is well written, rather slight, painfully dark, and confoundedly strange. Granted, Heti has made one concession to current tastes in her new book: it is a historical novel, based on the life of George Ticknor, a 19th-century Boston man of letters who once wrote a biography of William H. Prescott, a childhood friend who later became a successful historian. That is where the concessions end.

The novel imagines Ticknor as a solitary Prufrock figure: living alone, diligently crafting exquisitely boring journal articles about canals, gazing forlornly into the windows of fashionable literary salons to which he hasn’t been invited, and hopelessly labouring to regain the affection of his more-successful childhood friend while secretly lusting after said friend’s wife.

Heti has done a skillful job at capturing the prudish, hyper-literate voice of the educated bourgeoisie of the early- to mid-19th century. Ticknor doesn’t talk about his social status; he examines whether, and by whom, his “correspondence is being preserved.” Whenever a strong emotional statement slips from his pen, he immediately backtracks: “I have been thinking of you constantly. I thought of you often.” He repeatedly refers to his friend Prescott as “gay” – in the innocent, old-fashioned sense, of course, though the reader will grasp the none-too-subtle subtext.

Heti has great ironic fun when sketching the people who inhabit Ticknor’s world. There is the noble Prescott’s somehow sickening Victorian charity. In one scene he sends his errand boy down to the slums with coal money for some unfortunate soul, grilling the boy over whether the recipient will be tempted to spend the money on alcohol and then diligently noting the expenditure in his account book: “Charity, five dollars.” Prescott’s wife is one of those creepily angelic bourgeois women whose stiff upper lips cast dreary shadows over many a Victorian novel. The only time she asserts herself is when, at a literary awards dinner, she is “deeply offended” when a friend gallantly reminds Prescott not to forget his beloved wife in his acceptance speech (such dreadful impropriety!). These people: respectable, polite, and morally upright, but equally stubborn, eccentric, and distant.

Not to be unfair, but Heti herself exhibits the latter qualities in spades. Her peculiarity is frequently fascinating – Ticknor reminds one less of any other contemporary novel than it does of the bizarre pen-and-ink illustrations of Edward Gorey. But her remoteness, her refusal to temper her bleak worlds with even a little unironic human warmth, can be off-putting.

Unreserved fans of The Middle Stories will be impressed by Ticknor, but those who weren’t quite sure how to take that book will find the new novel even more elusive. For those commentators, and for the casual reader, it is hard not to wish that Heti (along with her Ticknor) would try just a little bit harder to fit in with the rest of society.