The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Be my fwiend

Posted on: April 29, 2007

Sheila Heti, the author of the captivating Ticknor, gave an interesting response when Mr. Condalmo asks her for an off-the-cuff assessment of her character’s mental health in a tiny interview.

I think we read literature in a funny way. We try to make sense of it the way we make sense of life, and by this route, look at the characters as though they’re our friends, by which I mean: we gossip about them and cheaply psychoanalyse them. I find this to be a very funny thing to do to a character! In a lot of interviews I’m asked to speculate on Ticknor in this way, as though he is something separate from myself, someone I know, that I can talk about objectively. But of course, he is only my words, my head, my understanding of things, my aesthetic – not a person at all. And so that makes it difficult to say what he’s like much the way that saying what you yourself are like is difficult. It’s stupid to ask an author about their characters, I think.

I imagine that some other feel differently (or maybe not). In other interviews I’ve read, authors have psychoanalysed their characters, or are willing to view them as a bit more separate from themselves. (No over-the-top inclusion of them on Christmas shopping lists, thank goodness.)

This made me wonder if these different writing modes translate into their work and to the reader. Are there certain writers with that particular style, certain novels, that lend themselves to “vivid” characters, the type that emerge in your mind physically resplendent, with memorable personality, ones with whom you could imagine being friends or deadly enemies? And others no less impressively written but whose full realisation is tied to the text, who are more easily conjured by lines running through your mind? Whether they are likable or not, characters to whom you can relate, is irrelevant to your reading experience and memory.

Ticknor is a bit of both, for me. When I think of Heti’s book he is fleshed out in such a fashion that I do engage in the sort of “cheap” psychoanalysing Condalmo attempted. I also instinctively recall a page or two of the book with it’s compact, neat paragraphs, holding lines and lines of Ticknor’s harried, paranoid, anxious words, perpetually uneasy or bummed about something.

For Dr. Apelles I am hyper-aware of him as an artificial, aesthetic, construct. I did find him at times poignant and sympathetic and all that, but I can’t really visual him as a person, as skin and bone. I adore him, but I don’t really adore him the character, as a person. The way that Treuer played with form, both in the sentences and the narrative contributed to that. He is “vivid” certainly, but in the sense that when I think of him I recall certain scenes, certain words and how they were put together.

There are characters like Bronte’s Jane who fairly leap off the page, I could easily imagine having conversations with her, or I could do some really bad fan fiction about her life ten years later, maybe with Bertha Mason rising from the dead as an honest-to-goodness vampire.

My Name is Red is another book that has characters who are impressively written but with whom I can’t imagine being chums or gossipy about. They’re all tied into that interchanging narrative: I think of “Shekure” and I imagine a page out of the story with her name at the top and so on. But, again, you’d be hard pressed to find a novel so saturated with art, history, philosophy and human vices. As a tale, as an aesthetic experience it’s near overwhelming. (It was for me, at any rate.)

I don’t know (and I don’t particularly care) if this is related to how authors see their characters. What does interest me is if anyone else detects such differences in their responses to fiction, from book to book, author to author? Or did the partying I did in Toronto last night befuddle my neural circuits?

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