It's Ticknor week here at LBC—a five-day dialogue/celebration of Sheila Heti's wonderful novel about a disappointed biographer. Today though Wednesday El Sarvas and I will be talking about what we loved about the book, and inviting your comments. Dan Green may stop by to offer his thoughts as well. Thursday you'll get Dan Wickett's interview with the author, and on Friday, for you loyal Segundonites, Ed Champion will have an audio interview with Ms. Heti. I guess you kids call that a podcast.
Poor Ticknor, with his wilted flowers and his rain-soaked pie! I have friends like that. I am friends like that. But never mind.
If you cast your mind back to October, you may recall an interesting little comment thread on the subject of re-reading novels. In response to my remark about re-reading Maps for Lost Lovers, commenter Mike kindly reminded me that not only did some people not re-read novels, they couldn't understand why anyone else would. I thought of this recently because there's a passage from Ticknor I've read with delight a dozen times already, and probably will read a dozen more.
Here's the set-up: Biographer George Ticknor is on his way to a party, as happens several times in the book, and it's raining, as it always is, and he lacks an umbrella, which he always does, and he's late, which he always is. He's holding the aforementioned pie, which is looking rather sad, and as he walks he thinks about the shame and disapproval he has in store when he arrives at the party "smelling like a wet dog," holding his destroyed pie.
Here's the cool part: for a moment, he has a little flight of fancy, imagining how he might be received in a world where his friends love him and care for him:
I have a pie. It's a little ruined, I laugh, but come—and we hurry into the kitchen together, bumping legs in front of the stove, laughing as she pours me a glass of wine, then back to the large and warm dining room with several people, ten, seven, seventeen, sitting all around it, but two seats reserved for us, me putting my drink at my plate, beside hers, and I return mugging to the kitchen once more with Claire, her shooing me out, then back to the table with Prescott's announcement and how he read the article I published and a toast! The woman's eyes are glowing beside me as I shrug modestly and let it go, shrug it off with one quick line and a wink, and then take half the glass in one gulp robustly, then the roast, then the potatoes passed around—and the sister beside me is bumping her arm into mine, she's left-handed, embarrassed about that, and I show her that I too can eat with my left hand and she laughs, the tears disappearing from her eyes.
Soon, though, he falls back to reality:
You think I'm terrible, but I tried my best. I'm sorry. So sorry. So sorry I am late. Please forgive me. Oh but wasn't it to start at ten? I thought you said ten! I thought you said ten. Put the pie in the flower bed. Leave now.
That just kills me.
One of the things I love about a short novel—Ticknor is 118 pages, around 40,000 words—is that it's possible to hold the entire book in your mind, and remember and revisit passages like this when you've finished the book. In a longer novel, it seems to me, one pleasure is quickly replaced by the next, and you (or at least I) quickly forget little touches like how Mrs. Gamp says "dispoged" instead of "disposed," and the ex-artilleryman Bagnet has named his daughters "Malta" and "Quebec" after military bases where he has been stationed. Long novels work by accumulation of detail; short novels by subtraction. I don't think it's a stretch to say that short novels can achieve a kind of perfection that long novels cannot. It's probably no accident that the book that repeatedly comes up on surveys as the greatest American novel, The Great Gatsby, is only 50,000 words long.
On the other hand, surveys also tell us that readers of fiction favor long novels, and sales figures show that long novels sell better. Maybe people are long-novel lovers or short-novel lovers, just like they're either readers or re-readers. Mark, I think I can guess which side you're on. What about everybody else?