Ticknor: A Novel by Sheila Heti

You might not know this, depending on where you live in the world, but Sheila Heti is the next big thing being primed to come out of the Canadian literary scene. As a young writer who emerged from nowhere in the late 1990s, Heti initially made waves by selling six (!) short stories to Dave Eggers’ ongoing literary tendency, McSweeney’s. This initial burst of productivity and fame was quickly followed by a short story collection called The Middle Stories in 2001, which were really, really short tales that contained urban magic realist elements (ie. a frog doles out advice to a plumber, a boy falls in love with a monkey, etc.). The buzz machine quickly caught hold, and that book — which was published stateside by McSweeney’s — rather promptly went into French, German and Dutch translations.

Now, along comes Ticknor, which is being promoted in Canada with a poster in which the rather becoming (and dare I say beautiful?) Heti — who turns 29 this year — is posed along with other major writers of Canadian vintage, including Margaret Atwood. This publicity marks a passing of the baton moment in Canadian writing, but the odd thing about Heti’s new book, which is being marketed as a “novel” despite being 112 pages long, is that it is actually an historical account of bunch of influential 19th century Americans. Sort of.

The story, and I use that term fairly loosely, is centered on George Ticknor and William Prescott, two American writers and historians, and is a fictitious re-imagining of their relationship. I say re-imagining because Heti paints the interactivity between the two men as a tumultuous one based on fear and self-loathing when, in reality, both men seemed to get along quite nicely with each other. (Ticknor even wrote Prescott’s biography in 1863, a tome which co-incidentally served as Heti’s inspiration for writing this novel.)

I don’t want to go too harsh on Heti as word in the rumour mill suggests that she is something of a rarity in writing circles for someone welding her level of power and influence: she’s reportedly a really nice person, and, believe me, that’s something worthy of respect. Still, there’s not a lot going on in Ticknor. When you aren’t being reminded stylistically of other books or movies — Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers comes to mind, as does the plot of the film Amadeus — you’ll probably find this book, even in its brevity, a real drag.

Ticknor is a really dry, boring book about one man’s inferiority complex and jealousy towards another man. In fact, I really don’t get the hoopla over this one. (Eye, a weekly arts tabloid in Toronto, gave this book a five out of five-star review.) As I alluded to earlier, this ground was already covered by Amadeus, which at least had the benefit of being accompanied with some really nice piano music, if memory serves me correctly.

Tellingly, the reader is never really allowed to like the book’s main protagonist, Ticknor, nor does Heti really provide that many clues to Ticknor’s bitterness at Prescott — although she clumsily drops a few ideas into her alternate history. (Ticknor didn’t have an educated upbringing, Ticknor had a poor relationship with his father, Ticknor never got it on with the women-folk, etc.) None of this really gels. Heti knows how to bring out the historical detail of a setting and write a good sentence, but other than that, without much of a story or plot to hinge her characters on, all the reader winds up being left with is the narrative of one bitter, cranky old man. Which makes me wonder: what, exactly, was the point of this exercise? Was Heti, perhaps, trying to write a modern-day parable about the pitfalls of today’s writing scene without actually naming names? Or maybe Heti is trying to pop a few bubbles of American patriotism by showing, perhaps, the real underbelly of a narcissistic pop culture?

I don’t know.

Ticknor might not entirely be a wash-out, but for someone of Heti’s supposed reputation, readers may be well advised to side-step this one and stick with the historical accounts instead. I would imagine they would be more fascinating than what Sheila Heti has managed to construct — imagined rivalry and all. Since there’s not much going on in this construction of history, I can’t help but ask myself: Why would anyone bother to write it in the first place?