I wanted to circle back to our first nominee, Sheila Heti’s Ticknor, as part of our discussion of the Spring Nominee. By chance, I read these two books, Ticknor and Television, one after the other and, both times, I got stuck—I almost couldn’t go on because the sense of identification with the unhappy, blocked narrator was too intense. This is my character—when I’m reading contemporary fiction, I tend to plunge in with too great a suspension of disbelief and much too great a willingness to identify with the narrator. It’s partly circumstantial, too: I was embroiled in a bit of a copyediting nightmare of my own as I read about these unhappy writers. What kept me going was the connection to Beckett: I kept thinking, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on” every time I was tempted to stop. I had to remind myself that narcissistic failures are funny and pathetic rather than tragic. That’s a weird kind of reminder—I didn’t feel the humor in my gut so much as have to remind myself to recognize the approach as comic.
But to call the narrator of Television unhappy may be to project my all-to-American work ethic onto him. (I only aspire to having a slacker hero…). Think about when he goes to the park and strips down to the nude, in the German way, thinking about how to begin his manuscript: “But wasn’t this working, I asked myself, this gradual, progressive opening of the mind, this steady sharpening of the senses?” (51).
Ticknor obsesses about what he might be missing at the party—torn between knowing reminders that all large dinner parties are ultimately dull, that he is not the most glittering or beloved of the guests, and hoping or fearing that this night will be different. In Television, the narrator seesaws between the knowledge of how dumb television is and the sense, when you’re not watching, that “something might happen if you turned it on” (66). This is a writer’s dilemma, it seems to me: that sense of trying to strike the balance between the living necessary to sustain a mind and imagination and the retreat necessary to get the actual writing done. The comedy in both novels comes from the way in which these writers screw up the balance completely—neither living fully nor writing.
Still, they’re not at all the same narrator. Heti’s Ticknor is full of self-doubt and self-loathing where Toussaint’s narrator is hilariously over-confident. I particularly love how Toussaint skewer’s his German. In need of Kleenex, he goes to the newsstand and asks for “towels”: “’Maybe you don’t sell towels?’ I said with the tinge of irony that is sometimes my way. ‘No,’ she said. ‘And what are those?’ I said, affably (not meaning to humiliate her), pointing out the many packets of Kleenex lined up behind the counter. ‘Those are Kleenex,’ she said. ‘Well, I’ll take one of those instead then,’…I continued in my best German accent. She must have taken me for a tourist…” (31)
Did others of you see links to Beckett or Heti? Am I alone in my mad habit of identifiying with narrators?