How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti. House of Anansi Press. 297pp, $14.95.
Sheila Heti’s Ugly Painting
It would have been easy for Sheila Heti to go awry with this book. With a title like How Should a Person Be?, a less confident writer might have been tempted to drag in the big guns: Heidegger, Sartre, maybe Levinas. A writer who felt she had more to prove might have tried to organize each chapter under the heading of a philosophical question, or theme, as indeed Heti does toward the end of the book. But by the time Heti begins to title her chapters “What is Empathy,” “What is Freedom,” “What is Betrayal,” these questions have been thoroughly earned: there is no pontificating or showing off in sight, and they are surrounded by less loftily-titled chapters like “Sheila wanders in the copy shop” and “In front of the bikini store.” This heterogeneous approach to fiction and philosophy is one of Heti’s most endearing qualities, and it is at the heart of this novel’s success.
Heti has been a writer to watch since her first collection, 2001’s The Middle Stories. Reading that volume put me in mind of that online video that went viral for awhile—the one with the three year-old French girl telling her story about Winnie the Pooh and the boxes with the animals that are poor. Both Heti and Clémentine enrapture with their own storytelling power, their narratives concise and pared-down, twisting in directions that could only have come from the idiosyncratic brain of the author herself.
I don’t want to belabor this point, because I would imagine that Heti must be tired of being called childlike and gamine, and because that aspect of her work has been toned down in her subsequent books: Ticknor, a novella about a controlled jealousy that threatens to overwhelm the mannered composure of the text and its narrator, and the latest, a novel-hybrid called How Should a Person Be? These two volumes do not operate in the same surreal story-spinning space as The Middle Stories, but that work clearly bears Heti’s DNA, which always informs the voice, style, and ethos of her work.
How Should a Person Be? sits neatly among Heti’s previous books: they are all engaged with interrogating the modalities of storytelling. But whereas the first two texts are interested in how to tell a story, this last one is interested in how to be the storyteller. This authorial self-consciousness is clear from the novel’s by-now conventional metafictional mode (all the characters are named after Heti and her friends; Heti herself told Canada’s National Post that “it’s a hard book to talk about for me, because everything I think about the book is in the book”); it is occasionally punctuated with segments of dialogue, reportedly recorded by Heti while hanging out with her friends over the period of a year.
The project of the book, Heti said in a 2008 lecture at the University of Alberta, was to find “a way of being not at all literary, and yet still writing a book, and not having metaphor, and still telling a story, and not making up characters: some kind of radical simplicity.” The novel is accordingly stripped of devices like a narrator, descriptions, metaphors, etc., and yet it loses none of its poetry and succeeds as a literary artifact, rather than a collection of quotidian observations.
The plot, if there can be said to be one, hinges on Sheila’s inability to write a play for a feminist theatre company. It doesn’t have to be a feminist play, they tell her, but it has to be about women. “I didn’t know anything about women! And yet I hoped I could do it, being a woman myself.” At the same time, Sheila is living in the aftermath of a failed marriage, trying to figure out how to befriend an artist called Margaux, and experiencing all-consuming lust for a painter named Israel. But the play just won’t come together, and, wanting desperately to be a genius, Sheila is terrified of failure.
In order, then, to write the play, Sheila begins her recordings, hoping to learn from her friends a bit more about how a person, and more specifically an artist, should be. Along the way she inadvertently ends up alienating Margaux, the one person who is as “serious” as Sheila. After the two girls travel to Miami together to attend Art Basel, Sheila writes an article about their trip. Margaux reads it and is so hurt she can no longer paint, Sheila feels responsible, and—well, I won’t tell you how it ends. Suffice it to say, the path to enlightenment is more of a Dantean journey. Do people change? Can we learn things? Through her friendship with Margaux, Sheila goes from “stupidly living” to living with consciousness, intention, awareness. This trajectory would seem to be at odds with the self-awareness and anti-conventional aspect of the rest of the text.
Part of what distinguishes Heti’s writing is the very banality of it. She tends to use short, staccato words, to dangle her prepositions, to make clear, simple pronouncements. In a chapter entitled “Interlude for Fucking,” she highlights the banality of the language available to us for describing sexual acts and in so doing reaches sublime heights. If one were only to judge from the n + 1 http://nplusonemag.com/how-should-a-person-be”>excerpt, one might think this was a book about blowjobs, but such matters only take up about a quarter of the novel’s interest. (This may be disappointing to some.) Heti comes off as Henry Miller in a hoodie. One passage in particular is a truly rhapsodic ode to total sexual capitulation, as Heti flirts with different metrical registers and turns “slut” into a verb. And never will I sit in a library again, I feel sure, without recalling this passage:
I don’t know why all of you just sit in the libraries when you could be fucked by Israel. I don’t know why all of you are reading books when you could be getting reamed by Israel, spat on, beaten up against the headboard—with every jab, your head battered against the headboard. Why are you all reading? I don’t understand this reading business when there is so much fucking to be done.
Then, before you know it, she’s talking about the death drive, and sex becomes an act of self-definition: “And blessed is she who can answer for herself, What about living? What is it about living that you want?”
This is a typical move for Heti, the bait-and-switch that takes you from the most commonplace observations into the most important questions a person can ask. A lecture about Caspar David Friedrich and the sublime (given at clown school) suddenly makes sense to Sheila in the context of the drug-saturated nights she’s been spending with Margaux. The clown professor lectures “Without a witness to the scene—” and Sheila supplies “Right! Right! It is not a picture of the sublime! Suddenly I understood our walks, mine and Margaux’s, through the alleys, up and down them on our drugs.”
In a brilliant chapter, told in film script-style dialogue, two of Sheila’s male friends tell about their illuminating recent trip to South Africa. They are narcissistically preoccupied with their own narcissism, and believe that what they learned there has cured them of it. “Oh my God! These are all people! These are a million people that live in shacks that are awesome people, that are smart, and, you know, are people.” Here she plays on several narrative levels, using italics to set off the banality of what he is saying while indicating Ben’s awareness that what he’s saying is at once completely obvious and completely unbelievable. You shall know our generation by our epiphanies of the readily apparent.
This points to what may be the crux of the book: that no matter how banal these questions and realizations may be, they are still the important questions to ask. Explaining the play they’re writing, Ben lays out the project of Heti’s own book: “Well a simple way to talk about it is it’s about us, and about our embarking on a project together, trying to make something together as friends trying to take each other out of ourselves and into the world, and it evolves into an actual engagement in the world. Then comes the discovery of something that we’re interested in replacing ourselves with.” Heti’s greatest interest is with the making of art: less how a person should be, but how a female artist should be. One particularly fruitful aspect of this question is the link between art-making and friendship: Sheila and Margaux become as necessary to each other as artists as they are as friends. “Life is with Margaux—talking to people!—which is an equally sincere attempt to make sense of myself and the world—just as sincere as writing a play!”
Sheila’s problems come from the fact that (as her therapist warns her) she is an example of the Jungian archetype puer aeternus, the eternal child. Eternal children invest too much energy picturing themselves from the outside, we are told; the puer aeternus must learn to “work—without escaping into fantasies about being the person who worked.” The reason Sheila needs to record her conversations—to develop a sense, through external means, of how she should be—is the very thing Margaux is most threatened by: her words “floating separate” from her body. “You there with that tape recorder looks like my own death,” Margaux says. This aspect of the book is concerned with the ways in which Heti and her co-generationists (ahem) are aware that they are continually constructing the versions of themselves they want other people to believe in. Or as Margaux puts it, cannily, “we only exist in pictures.”
But Sheila comes to define this externalized means of trying to become who she wants to be as “cheating”:
It is cheating to treat oneself as an object, or as an object to tend to, or as an icon. It was true four thousand years ago when our ancestors wandered the desert, and it’s as true today when the icon is ourself. . . . When we try to turn ourselves into a beautiful object, it is because we mistakenly consider ourselves to be an object.”
She is only able to reach this epiphany through her friendship with Margaux. Sheila realizes that in using Margaux’s words from her recordings
I had plagiarized her being and mixed it up with the ugliness in me. Then she had looked into it, and like looking into a funhouse mirror, thought the decadent, narcissistic, meaningless person she saw was her—when it was myself. Unwilling to be naked, I had made her naked instead. I had not worked hard, or at all.
This goes against Margaux’s own artistic ethos, which remains steady throughout the novel, even as Sheila searches for an ethos of her own. Marguax’s ethics is emblematized by the Ugly Painting Competition that begins and ends the novel, wherein she and her artist friend, Sholem, resolve to paint the ugliest painting possible. Sholem goes about this by making lists:
lists of beautiful subjects, beautiful colours, and beautiful forms. And he tried to understand what ugliness was made of, to avoid making something so ugly that it filled him with shame—the feeling of having raped himself. He made lists of what to avoid—formal arrangements and styles.
But once he has created the ugly painting, it haunts him: he can’t free himself from the awful feeling of having deliberately made something ugly. This, Heti implies, is the problem with Sholem as an artist: his fear of failure, and his need for control. “Sholem should have been ugly with all of his heart,” says Margaux. “From his centre, not from a list.”
This is of course the lesson Sheila has to learn over the course of the novel: that art has to come from within. From the beginning Margaux encourages her to “put on this crappy play” because it would be “more in the service of [Sheila’s] life.” Later, she asks, “Does it have to be a play?”
So perhaps this book is Sheila Heti’s ugly painting. The genius of Heti’s conceit is that if the novel seems sometimes a bit thin, or self-indulgent, a case could be made that this is part of the point. I did get the feeling, reading How Should a Person Be?, that Heti’s editor at Anansi is a little afraid of her. There are occasional digressions that amount to little, as well as a whole sub-theme involving ancient Jews that didn’t seem to cohere with the rest. But these faults are minor and it would be wrong to linger on them: with Heti, it’s all about the writing. From pithy quotables (“Night fell, but then, there are always holes to fall into,”) to the oddly profound (“If now in some ways I drink too much, it’s not that I lack a reverence for the world”), this is a novel that rewards reading, sitting with, and rereading.
Lauren Elkin is a Paris-based writer and literary critic. She recently obtained her PhD in English literature, and her first novel, Floating Cities, will be published in the fall by Editions Héloïse d’Ormesson. She teaches at New York University in France.
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