A difficult novella that’s a riff on literature’s outsiders and insiders; it’s the second experimental work from this young Canadian author, following her collection The Middle Stories (2001, not reviewed).
“There were no books when I was a boy . . . other boys had books . . . no, the whole country lacked books.” So goes the opening as the narrator, Ticknor, revises and contradicts himself, sorting through his memories of early-19th-century New England. Slowly, a contrast emerges. There is privation (Ticknor’s experience) and there is plenty, enjoyed by his childhood friend Prescott. (The latter was a respected American historian; Ticknor, a Harvard professor, was his biographer.) As they mature, the contrast sharpens. The world of 19th-century Boston is Prescott’s oyster. His work receives “a great roar from the national press,” while Ticknor has been working ten years on one article, and cannot even get Prescott’s opinion of it. Prescott bests him with women, too. He is happily married to the ample Claire; Ticknor, a bachelor, lusts after her, to Claire’s disgust. Yet they stay in touch, inviting Ticknor to supper; the fussbudget endlessly deliberates his preparations for the occasion. Prescott’s life is not all peaches and cream. As a schoolboy, he had received a bread roll smack in the eye and suffered recurring vision problems. Did Ticknor inadvertently launch the offending roll, and then refuse to apologize? And does it really matter? Heti’s work is kin to Nabokov’s Pale Fire in its portrayal of a problematic relationship between two writers, strung with tripwires, fueled by obsession. Ticknor will outlive Prescott, and he will mourn “the extinguishing of a flame that had burned so brightly”; we are left guessing whether that is a sincere tribute or bitter irony.
With this austere one-note monologue, Heti offers a plate of sour grapes. Ultimately, her work is not daring or terribly experimental.