SYNOPSIS: Sheila Heti’s 2005 novel about the inner anxieties of one prominent American historian, as he rushes to a dinner party at the house of another, slightly more prominent American historian.
CONDITION: Beautiful House of Anansi hardcover, bought used from Alhambra Books.
THOUGHTS: It may be shallow to say it, but the design for Ticknor tells us almost everything we need to know about the slippery, entrancing novel contained within. George Ticknor’s last name is repeated several times across the cover, emphasizing its clock-like, high-pressure connotation. (The titular Ticknor seems to hear a constant tick-tock in his head at all times.) Its overall impression is that of an Old West wanted poster; Heti’s novel is, sure enough, set in mid-19th-century Boston.
Mostly, though, the design is just gorgeous. (A major hat-tip to Bill Douglas at The Bang.) And so is Ticknor.
Strange how so many thick novels can actually feel smaller than their 100-page counterparts—as if the world feels larger through implication, and that diligently cataloguing every last item and experience in fact strips that world of its mystique. It turns out we don’t want every last stone looked under. Ticknor merrily rattles around inside its hero’s skull as he frets about how his oldest friend, William Prescott, has moved on to a new world of prestige and social dignity—and that Ticknor is only being dragged along begrudgingly, out of some sense of obligation.
Heti’s narrative voice is spot on, and Ticknor’s fears are enunciated with an all-too-relatable clarity and irrational jealousy. He glares at Prescott’s newer, more upwardly mobile friends with a religious anger, and spends a lot of time planning how to best appear casual and in the moment. I’m happy to induct Ticknor into my new favourite mini-genre of fiction (along with the campus novel): Smart People Over-thinking Everything. There’s some prestigious company, to be sure—hello, Notes From the Underground—but Heti can hold her own.
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SYNOPSIS: Haruki Murakami’s 2004 novel (translated into English by Jay Rubin in 2007) about the many people and things that go bump in the night in Tokyo between midnight and dawn.
CONDITION: Bond Street Books hardcover; library.
THOUGHTS: This is just getting annoying. Despite laying uncommonly solid groundwork—the opening pages give us images of sentient neon cities and multi-limbed deep-sea monsters—After Dark leans on every one of the vague crutches and misdirections Murakami so often falls prey to. Hare-brained, slang-fueled philosophy. Fantastic elements that signify nothing beyond themselves. A third act that crumbles to dust with the slightest prod.
Yet I do like him, sometimes (usually? For 66% of 66% of his books?). So at what point does Murakami move from being a postmodern dreamweaver into just another stoner bullshit artist?
After Dark follows a loose collective of insomniacs and late-shift workers as they putter around Tokyo over the wee hours of one night. But in both tone and plot, there’s no reason this book couldn’t take place at noon and in the bright sun. The mood is artificial and unearned, the only antagonism comically over-inflated: a nefarious group of Chinese gangsters, and someone called The Man With No Face, who can pull sleeping teenage models through their TV screens. Please. All that’s left over are a long trombone solo (not a metaphor) and the unnaturally wise-cracking staff at a bookable-by-the-hour “love hotel”—all of which is thrown together and declared a mosaic, when what it really is is sloppy and confused.
Nope. Double nope.