The heroine of Sheila Heti’s novel How Should a Person Be? is called Sheila Heti, alerting the reader to its position on an arbitrary interface of fact and fiction, where it profits from both the confidential charm of personal confession and the privileged freedom of the imagined. This is very much the mode of many recent younger writers (Heti is thirty-five)—Jean Kwok, Teju Cole, Aleksander Hemon—writers very different from one another whose first-person accounts, whether of a wandering Nigerian or an Asian girl in high school, share with Heti certain qualities of offhanded charm, but also the same difficulty of transcending the limitation that first-person voices tend to sound alike the closer they come to transcribed speech, the current ideal.
Sheila Heti the character, like Sheila Heti the actual writer, lives in Toronto and has a friend, Misha Glouberman, who in real life has collaborated with her on a book of clever little fables called The Chairs Are Where the People Go (2011). She also has a friend named Margaux Williamson, other friends and acquaintances named Sholem and Solomon, and maybe a boyfriend named Israel—these are based on real people of the same names and recur in other works of hers. Margaux and Sholem are painters whose observations and discussions around art are particularly important to Sheila the character, discussions we might find a little glib, or maybe just young, but tinged with that earnest Canadian spirit of moral inquiry that can make Americans feel old and definitely tarnished.
These youngish Toronto folks talk the talk, but can seem like people who covet the identity and renown of artists without necessarily doing art. Sheila and her friends have modern concerns about fame and success. She answers the title question “How should a person be?” by saying, “I sometimes wonder about it, and I can’t help answering like this: a celebrity.” Sheila is trying and trying to finish a play, but she doesn’t. She thinks she wants to lead a simple life, but “by a simple life, I mean a life of undying fame that I don’t have to participate in.” Meantime she and her friend Margaux “do whatever we can to make the other one feel famous.” It seems as if she’s only half kidding.
Their talks are amusing, candid, fast, relevant, the minimalist opposites of old-timey, stolid writers like, say, Thomas Mann, with whom they share some concerns—art, anxiety, the solitude of the self—and add some new ones just for us, especially issues around “communication.” For someone living in the era of Facebook, lack of communication, not making yourself known is viewed as tragic or at least, as they put it, “retarded.” It’s striking that in the old days, personal isolation was not always a subject so much as an underlying assumption, a given; not so much tragic as merely normal, inevitable, and sad. Now, “tragic” has eroded to mean something personally …