Ticknor, by Sheila Heti
House of Anansi Press, 109 pp, $19.95, hardcover.
"Getting somewhere," says George Ticknor, the narrator of this splendid novella by the young literary star Sheila Heti, "always involves more effort than getting there is worth." Readers won't find this to be true of this particular journey, though the book begins roughly, with 15 pages of mildly postmodern parataxis in the manner of Douglas Coupland. Only then do we encounter the first Victorian sentence: "Those who know him as one commonly knows a man may find these accounts of his private habits unexpected, even exaggerated; however, during the whole of this trying period he remained agreeable and gay and made no righteous show of the ad?mirable virtues that everyone knew he possessed."
The "him" is the majestic New England narrative historian William Hickling Prescott (1796-1859), who, despite encroaching blindness, wrote enormously long, and enormously popular, books about the Spanish conquest of Latin America. Once Heti gets started, there's only one lapse in the verisimilitude of her diction, when Ticknor (also a real historical figure, lawyer, and public intellectual, 1791-1871) says ad?miringly that Mrs. Prescott's ass is "like a whole different being entirely". Otherwise we are back in 19th- century Boston and inside Ticknor's private thoughts-the sort that always surface at 3 a.m. and never get written down-as he contemplates his complex social relationship with a genius-grade contemporary he both admires and is jealous of and in whose presence he's certainly more awkward than he wishes.
Even though the tale Heti has to tell takes place almost entirely in the mind, she manages to imbue it with drama, as when Ticknor says to himself: "There used to be so many hours lost, enjoying each other and laughing, hours passed without our knowing it, but after that night I came to accept this new footing and did not ask for anything any more." The pleasure here comes from seeing her go so deeply into the motives of the protagonist she reimagines for us and then return with so much rich prose. With its cramped spaces and compressed time line, the novella is among the most difficult of literary forms. Heti chews more than she bites off. Our pleasure comes in watching her masticate the material so thoroughly.
Sheila Heti reads from Ticknor at Crush Champagne Lounge (1180 Granville Street) next Wednesday (April 13), beginning at 8 p.m. Lee Henderson opens, reading from his novel in progress, The Man Game.