How Should A Person Be?: A Novel From Life

By Sheila Heti

Henry Holt & Co., 306 p.

Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be?: A Novel From Life has taken a roundabout path to publication in the United States. Excerpts first appeared in n+1 in late 2010, but the book had no US publisher at the time; it was floating around in Canada for just over a year before the book came out in the US this week. What n+1 chose to make available to its audience was from perhaps the most graphic, though not the most provocative, section of the book, wherein the protagonist (also named Sheila) has a bluntly dirty sexual affair with a man named Israel. The tone of these passages was defiant, the writing approximating the feeling of overhearing a loud conversation. Depending on your disposition, you either read the excerpt and bemoaned American publishing prudes, or you couldn’t roll your eyes and close the tab on your browser quickly enough. You wouldn’t guess that this book was as much, if not more, about a female friendship as it was about sex and nearly religious soul-searching. What does a novel from life look like? Heti’s result is an existential quest with all the intimacy of stalking someone on the Internet. Emails are read, dialogue transcribed, sexual fantasies not whispered but shouted in a crowd, the void woefully contemplated in loose prose. Heti is a director of our voyeurism, as much as she is its scribe. Excerpting her own excerpt from life can send a clumsy message.

A similar miscommunication happened with Heti’s previous book, The Chairs Are Where People Go; an excerpt ran in The Paris Review Daily and prompted a spirited dialogue on The Awl about the obnoxiousness of the speaker, whose privilege and Harvard pedigree painted a bulls-eye big enough for a barn. To reach the part of The Chairs Are Where People Go that was taken out of context is to be hit over the head with how rarefied complete control over context actually is. In order to be interested in a book, there must be some kind of publicity for it, but what to do with negative buzz? By the time you reach what sounded insipid and naïve online, you have been hearing the speaker’s voice enough to understand the rhythms and the usefulness of his thoughts. You can excuse and even refuse to see his insensitivity. Perhaps you don’t see it as insensitivity at all—maybe you’re sucked in, your mild curiosity now turned to complete investment. Both books, The Chairs and How Should A Person Be?, are an eerie approximation of unfiltered thoughts—not mine, but a mirror image of theirs—and how that reads on paper. Both are an attempt to control the shape of something being sold as shapeless and raw.

The characters are young artists, living in a big city, selfish and worried about being the best that they can be. The story, as it were, is that we are catching Sheila, our protagonist, at the moment where she is making all her mistakes (as if the process of messing up ever ends) leading up to a better understanding of who she is. She’s freshly divorced, working in a hair salon, procrastinating work on a play about women, falling in lust with a beautiful man, and hurting her best friend. That there are mistakes to be made and embraced is the unifying theme of the book. “The only thing I ever understood is that everyone should make the big mistakes,” one character says to Sheila, and one can hear a lazy music supervisor sigh as he chooses “Solsbury Hill” for this movie’s soundtrack.

The stakes are low, in spite of all the anxiety over risks. This is a specifically leisure class: “There are certain people who do not feel like they were raised by wolves, and they are the ones who make the world tick,” Sheila says in the prologue. “They are the ones who keep everything functioning so the rest of us”—it’s almost Montaigne-like, how easily she slips in that “us”—“can worry about what sort of person we should be.” The joke here, I guess, is that these characters have the privilege of driving themselves crazy looking inward. They throw parties with wine and cheese, and they have brunch. Sheila buys an expensive tape recorder and visits a Jungian analyst even though she is not making a lot of money, and she smirks at a woman who is moved by the line “for richer or poorer” in the standard wedding vows. How materialistic to worry about money! That’s not Sheila’s concern. Sheila’s big questions are instead about being an artist and making art, about being a genius. In other words, herself, “but better in every way! And yet there are so many ways of being better, and these ways can contradict each other!”

The only truly clear idea she has of how a person should be is this: a person should be a celebrity. To solve the problem of not knowing who she is, other people will know instead. But the idea is somewhat repulsive to her. She doesn’t want to be around other celebrities. She does not want to participate in her own fame. She wants the impossible life of a person whose celebrity has no impact on her quotidian experience. She wants people to know who she is to the point where they don’t have any interest in hearing everything she does or says. Has there really ever been anyone like this in the world, an example to which Sheila could aspire? Has the world ever been so uninterested in a truly famous person? “No one has to know what I think, for I don’t really think anything at all, and no one has to know the details of my life, for there are no good details to know. It is the quality of fame one is after here, without any of its qualities.” She is telling us, as if it were possible, she wants what is impossible, and I think it’s a joke.

***

In the prologue, Sheila intermittently mentions her best friend Margaux, who is the Earth to Sheila’s moon, which as a metaphor is grandiose but not far from the truth. Their friendship is motivational and nourishing, and when they fall out it wounds them both deeply. As a unit they have the confidence to blow off men who are, in Margaux’s paraphrased words, just trying to teach them something. Their relationship’s complexity and realism grounds the book’s plot in a meaningful way. When I find myself shrugging at the concerns of Sheila, I return to how lovingly depicted and thrillingly complicated the romance between Margaux and Sheila is.

It should be said that these characters are all based on real people. Margaux lives and paints in Toronto; Misha, her boyfriend, does in fact teach improv; Sholem, one of the participants in the ugly painting contest, was asked at a party if he was the Sholem in How Should A Person Be? While the novel is fictional, the people are real, and the result is the closest we’ve come to a literary equivalent of following someone’s status updates on Facebook or any of the various social identity platforms. All of which is fitting; this book is so obsessed with identity that it becomes entirely about itself—indeed, the book begins more or less with Heti’s quest to write about women, and it ends with the book we are reading being written. Although as a trick it’s not the most mind-blowing (something that an R. Kelly song accomplishes in three minutes hardly is surprising at the end of a three-hundred page novel), it’s not a terrible device for a book that cribs from a time-worn tale that could use remodeling: the “woman discovering herself” story. So much of women’s fiction, the actual genre and not the Amazon category that includes Franzen, etc., is about what women ultimately and finally are; even when they are traveling, confronting new cultures, and meeting new people, we learn they are finding or coming back to themselves. For a book to come out and say its intentions in this direction (and end elliptically) is not brave as much as it’s very close to reality television: an orchestrated heart-to-heart whose value lies in having no filter, telling you how it really is without being as boring or intangible as it could actually be.

In the prologue, Heti winks: “Every era has its art form. The nineteenth century, I know, was tops for the novel.” Well, yes, and this book is in many ways a nineteenth century bildungsroman, spiritual kin to young Werther. But it’s also no coincidence that the cheerleaders for How Should A Person Be?, among them David Shields, champion stories that hinge, first and foremost, on a voice. In many ways this book is a continuation of, or a complement to, the project of The Chairs Are Where People Go. In both, Heti is recording how the people she knows sound when they talk to one another, and she’s editing it to create a narrative of their inner thoughts. If it’s true that we tell ourselves stories in order to live, then the characters of How Should A Person Be? don’t have any stories they like yet. They obsess over what it takes to get to the point where they know what they’re doing. Desperately they reach for the end of the story of finding themselves, and they get distracted along the way.

When the book’s blurbs call it messy, the blurbers aren’t exactly putting forth a kind euphemism for unstructured or unfinished. “Messy” is an apt description of the book’s contents. It’s either artless blogging or an excellent mimesis of the way people think and talk. Or it could be both—the two aren’t mutually exclusive. What’s ultimately the most frustrating thing about How Should A Person Be? is its embodiment of its most successful theme. I want the book to be itself, but better in every way; I too am sick to death of my contemporaries. “The other night out at the bars,” Sheila says, “I learned that Nietzsche wrote on a typewriter. It is unbelievable to me, and I no longer feel that his philosophy has the same validity or aura of truth that it formerly did. No other detail of his life situating him so squarely in the modern age could have affected me as much as learning this. He typed Zarathustra? Goddamnit, the man had no more connection to the truth than a stenographer!” It feels as if we can’t control the context of our things any more than we can control how others think and feel about us. Heti seems to be aware that this lack of control, more so than the self-help comforts of knowing that it’s okay to make mistakes, is her novel’s crux. In albeit simple prose Heti gives a novelistic treatment to an oversharer’s fever dream.

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