My colleague Mark Sarvas has attracted my attention (and inspired this post) by pointing to William T. Vollmann and David Foster Wallace as examples of bloat, or, as he styles, “heft equals significance.” Now ordinarily I could let such sullies slide. And I should preface my statement by noting that Mr. Sarvas is a good man, mischievous and delightfully jocular. But when the comparative indicator is Sheila Heti’s Ticknor, a novel that is, in this reader’s estimation, quite problematic and a tome that is without that ambition which crackles on every page and delights in every paragraph, certain allegations must be responded to.
Mark writes of “the miracle of voice that Heti pulls off,” that the book’s tone doesn’t “rely on tired platitudes.” There are further suggestions by both Sam and Mark that the book is “darkly funny.”
As will soon be reported in various interviews, the “voice” that Heti is striving for was culled from the most lackluster of sources: namely, the dull and humorless papers of historian George Ticknor, which were reportedly copied, in some cases, almost word-for-word by Heti into this novel. On a rudimentary level, this might be an achievement in mimesis. If this is the case, we might very well send in a legion of cheerleaders to celebrate the work of a copyist working sixteen hour days.
But when the results are banal passages such as the below, one must call into question the labors of the endeavor:
The bathwater was cold when I pulled myself from the tub, dripping down. I looked about me for a towel, but all of the towels were gone. They were not hanging in the bathroom or lying on the floor. They were in the outer room, which was filled up with smoke. I would have to go and dry myself in there, and the bath -- a waste; the smoke sticking to my skin, stinking me up again. (60)
This represents Ticknor’s dilemma in a nutshell. Here is a protagonist wholly incapable of active behavior throughout Ticknor’s interminable 118 pages. Even something as inconsequential as a towel proves to be comparable to climbing Everest. One might have found a certain amount of pleasure in prodigious kvetching, comparable to Nicholson Baker’s quotidian obsessions in The Mezzanine or the atmosphere that reflects Leo Feldman’s incarceration in Stanley Elkin’s A Bad Man, had Heti actually bothered to provide us with Ticknor’s feelings rather than the incongruous geography of inconsequential objects. But there is no underlying point to Ticknor’s negativity – nothing along the lines of the telltale cat juxtaposing Sophie Bentwood’s inner turmoil in Paula Fox’s excellent novel Desperate Characters. Nothing that offers us a point of ambiguity, a conduit of some sort, which might connect the towels with Ticknor’s fears.
One is more puzzled than enchanted by these details. There is the awkward “dripping down,” appended to the opening sentence, but more of a generalized feeling of despair rather than an explicit emotion. There is the outright wrong “I looked about me” when Ticknor knows very well where the towels are. Heti’s mistake is to fixate on inconsequential details rather than dramatizing consequential emotions such as pain or jealousy or telling us why the towels might mean something. Okay, so they’re laden with smoke. We get this. But we have no clue as to why Ticknor would place them in a room where the smoke will seep into their fiber. There is perhaps the unvoiced possibility that he expects some anonymous servant to take care of him and to give him his precious towels. But if this were the case, why not simply say this? If the intention here is to impute that Ticknor wants someone to pamper him, why not offer an imaginary servant? A missing link much like Fox’s cat?
In concentrating exhaustively on the towels, Heti misses out on a “darkly funny” possibility which might have allowed a conduit between Ticknor and his towels. The reader, as a result, fails to get inside Ticknor’s head. Catastrophically, Heti offers us not one, but two sentences describing their location. And the result is a passage that is dull and without payoff. We’ve all experienced moments where a crisp towel is beyond one’s reach. But there is generally a very human reason for this: it might be indolence at failing to do the laundry or an overall sense of planning towels with one’s personal hygiene.
How is such deliberate obfuscation in any sense “a miracle of voice?” How are these very generalities anything less than “tired platitudes?” It is utterly trite to mention soiled towels without so much as an indication as to the existential factors explicating why they were despoiled. Would it not be more interesting or “darkly funny” to know why Ticknor has sabotaged his own post-bath experience? Sadly, as is all too common throughout the novel, we are given nothing but these generalizations. And one might argue the obverse: that skimping out on these telling details provides us with insignificance. Personally, I’ll take Vollmann charting as many details (perhaps too enthusiastically at times) of a den of whores over Heti’s inability to get to the heart of the matter.