On a rainy night, George Ticknor departs for his friend William Prescott’s dinner party, carrying a pie. During his journey, a lifetime of resentment at his own failure and jealously of Prescott’s success is reviewed as Ticknor deliberates on real and imagined slights, awkward social events and professional failure. Morose, wet and bearing a ruined pie, Ticknor would rather not arrive at Prescott’s but is incapable of returning home with yet another black mark on his character. Through his rambling recollections, a picture of the complex relationship between biographer and subject is drawn.
Ticknor is loosely based on the real-life friendship between historian William Hickling Prescott and his biographer George Ticknor. As author Sheila Heti shared in an interview with her publishers: “I picked up a fake leather-bound book…I opened to the middle and was shocked by what I read – there was something so obsessive and petty about the writer.” Heti walked out of the café with Life of William Hickling Prescott by George Ticknor and the subject for her first novel was found.
Several critics have called Ticknor “Prufrockian” and the comparison makes sense. Like T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” it is difficult to determine exactly what is occurring in Ticknor. Readers are exposed to the seething mass of thoughts, images, emotions and memories running through Ticknor’s head as he makes his way to Prescott’s dinner party. It is unclear if Ticknor is speaking directly to the reader or if he is carrying on an internal dialogue designed to rewrite his own history.
Ticknor is a bitter man and Heti has perfectly captured the obsessive nature of his character, filling the narration with repetition, self-justification, bitterness, hatred, obsession and love. Readers are quickly pulled into the mire that is Ticknor’s mind, leaving the reader in a state of heightened anxiety similar to the one experienced by Ticknor as he steps out his door.
Sheila Heti runs the popular Trampoline Hall lecture series held in Toronto and New York City, which features people speaking on subjects outside their areas of expertise. She has published a collection of short stories, The Middle Stories, and writes for a variety of journals and anthologies. Her musical "All Our Happy Days Are Stupid", commissioned by Nightwood Theatre and featuring the music of Destroyer's Dan Bejar, was produced in 2006.
Read the review at Curled Up with a Good Book.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication Date: April 4, 2006
tags: books book review Sheila Heti