Eventually Ticknor cautiously circles around to a tale from their school days -- a food fight in the dining hall, a thrown piece of bread that injures the young Prescott's eye, leading to partial blindness and a long convalescence (during which Ticknor himself is taking the Grand Tour)...did Ticknor throw the bread? If he did...does Prescott know? What long but never-mentioned shadow has the accident cast on their relationship? What mysterious role does it play in Prescott's later fame, since it is after his convalescence that he discovers his astonishing powers as a historian and becomes one of the most admired men in his community, while Ticknor lives alone, is the author of a handful of disregarded articles, and seems to dampen conversation wherever he goes?
Heti has calibrated the novel's (novella's?) tone with great exactness. Her Ticknor sounds a bit like what Henry James's John Marcher would sound like had he been genetically modified with the literary DNA of Dostoyevsky's Underground Man and Beckett's Molloy. The closest parallel, however, may be with Steven Millhauser's Edwin Mullhouse, another tale of a biographer whose admiration of his subject has gone green-with-envy around the edges, who like Ticknor intuits that biographer and subject are locked in a struggle from which only one of them will emerge alive.
"Every great man nowadays has his disciples," Wilde wrote, "and it is always Judas who writes the biography."