“I’ll be your Boswell, if you’ll be my Johnson.” So the conversation might have gone between Heti’s Ticknor and Ticknor’s Prescott—if Prescott had deigned to speak to Ticknor at all, instead of inviting him to luminously assembled dinner parties and then promptly ignoring him. Prescott and Ticknor were, by the names of them, minor literary characters in mid-19th-century Boston. Prescott wrote a history of the conquest of Peru, and Ticknor wrote a history of Prescott. Scholarly nonfictions, most critics will tell us, are documents of their ages and authors, as well as their supposed subjects. If so, Ticknor’s Life of William Hickling Prescott is the retroactive production of Ticknor’s demented inner torment, as chronicled, two centuries later, by the succinctly whirring imagination of Canadian Sheila Heti.
Heti, the author of a collection of contemporary fables, The Middle Stories (2002), transcribes Ticknor’s inner monologue to the rhythm of a short whine. He complains: “There were no books when I was a boy.” He complains: “I had no taste when I was young. I had no books.” Reader or not, Heti’s Ticknor is not a man who could have written a book to completion; he can hardly walk down the street. Watching him advance, one step forward, six steps back, toward the Prescott party that never arrives, is like negotiating a par- ticularly satisfying puzzle: Heti’s prose is the journey, and the destination. Reading Ticknor, in fact, approaches the pared-down perfection of actually reaching the Prescotts. (“The simplicity of their lives is not to be mistaken, though rich and substantial,” Ticknor explains. “[N]o trace of loneliness can be seen on his face at their suppers.”
The trouble with Heti’s pitch-perfect reaction is that it doesn’t do much that some other, levelheaded postmodernist—take Lydia Davis— hasn’t done before. One could keep reading, or put the book down, or forget it altogether. What’s the hurry? Lately, this reader’s been occupied with a dismal question. Do any of the books we adore leave us feeling they really, truly need to exist? The answer for Heti’s peculiar delicacy resolves to an irrelevant negative: Missing Ticknor would be like missing pistachios.