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 inconvenient or devastating, an index of the self-absorption that is a dominating feature of contemporary fiction, though with generous exceptions.
Heti claims that her novel is more constructed than actually written, from lists, letters, tapes, and transcriptions of the sayings of her friends, and this is its effect. The effort is to efface the artificial, to attain the verisimilitude and jerky images of cell-phone videos. If part of our appreciation of art is in our sense that the artist has taken pains, as in the paintings of Richard Dadd or the writing of Nabokov, the idea here is to frustrate that pleasure.
She and her friends talk a lot, sometimes about cultural issues: there’s an eighteen-page playlet with Solomon, the copy shop man, about Judaism, beginning when he tells her, “By the way, a Jew is a Jew. Did you know that? Even if you convert to another religion, you are still a Jew.”
Sheila: Yeah, I think so.
Solomon: There’s nothing to think! This is our religion!
More often, they talk about art and ways of being, passages that could be scenes from the play Sheila is trying to finish:
Sholem: But don’t you see? I have this terrible fear—it has always been my greatest fear—that my acting is better than my painting.
Sheila: So what? If it is, then you can act.
Sholem: But Sheila, no! (sighs)
The novel, then, is a collage of quasi- audible forms of text—embedded e-mails, to-do lists, recordings, or plays—reminding us of how often modern fiction is apt to be directed toward performance. This may be the result of the extent to which the spoken and the audible play a huge part in the modern experience of art in general: film, television, theatrical monologues, one-man shows, and even the visual arts—especially video but also still photography. In the work of, say, Cindy Sherman, who like Sheila’s friends wanted to make ugly art, the connection among the photos can approach the effect of video.
It’s a conceptual novel. But sometimes the young—even childlike—tone of the conversations subverts its intention to portray the liberation of the artist from the socially constructed limitations on her development. Maybe the play form works against detailed exposition. Fiction spoken aloud is not new; it began that way, supposedly, with Homer. Dickens was a notable performer of his novels, and today we have gifted writers like David Sedaris, whose performances of his printed essays are thronged, or Margaret Atwood, who after publishing her last novel had a sort of road show of it, with robes and music.
Beside the modest plot of Sheila trying to finish her play, there’s a buried, unavowedly feminist preoccupation. How will she liberate herself from the scenario a teenage boyfriend had once predicted for her: “fated to a life of loss and suffering”? Fear of this fate accounts for her lack of self-confidence and her need to comply with the requirements of others, qualities of diffidence and compliance traditionally valued in women that she had always imagined stem from their high-sounding capacity for empathy but, she eventually realizes, really come from a counterproductive and less-than-admirable need to be approved of or admired. How a “person” should be is subtly changed to how a woman should be, and gender issues replace the serene androgyny of the original question.
Part of the text consists of lists sent to Sheila by her demanding boyfriend Israel:
1. hey Slut,
2. so theres something i need done for me.
3. i want you to go out, this weekend or next, doesnt matter, wearing a short skirt and no panties. go to a well-attended bar or patio.
He has a long list of requirements: she will write him a letter—“you will tell me in the letter how much you miss my cum in your mouth”—while exposing herself to “someone on the patio that you feel deserves to see your cunt.” She reads and complies. She’s a compliant person, something she will come to realize is not always how a person should be.
Loyal friends, Sheila and Margaux believe in each other’s genius. Responding to modernist concerns about artistic genius, Sheila says, “One good thing about being a woman is we haven’t too many examples yet of what a genius looks like. It could be me. There is no ideal model of how my mind should be.” She introduces women she admires, who were mostly left out of that discussion, which accounts for the nice old-fashioned quality of its defiance. Never mind postmodernism. Is the novelist Heti ironically aware that the Sheila character and Israel are enacting another currently fashionable, vaguely S&M scenario of female humiliation and submission, a durable fascination since Sade, or Story of O, or some of Jean Rhys, or, today, the best-selling Fifty Shades of Grey?
The nearly unacknowledged theme of female self-denigration, and especially the difficulty for the woman artist to find psychic equality with men, surfaces explicitly at the end of the novel. Margaux and Sholem have devised a competition to see who can paint the ugliest picture. Each artist has to describe his intentions and his view of whether he’s accomplished them, involving definitions of ugliness and other underlying assumptions. Sholem arrives at his “truly ugly” painting by doing everything he hated when his students did it.
Margaux, revealingly enough, thinks of achieving her ugly painting by covering herself in paint and imprinting part of her anatomy:
What I really wanted to do, but I decided it was too conceptual and would probably lead to beauty, was to cover myself in paint and straddle the canvas and then have a rainbow coming out of a hole with a sunrise, and I was like, It’s great!—it’s huge!—and it’s so funny! I wanted it to be four foot by five foot. Then I thought, No—’cause it was already in my head—that’s not right, I should follow my instincts more. So I thought, I’ll just do it instinctually, and the same thing came out!
They discuss various aesthetic elements of what is basically an imprint of a vagina, the ugliest thing the woman artist can imagine.
At the dénouement, in a well-managed transition from the passages in dialogue to Sheila’s inner monologue of self- recognition and liberation or maturation, the poised comic voice of the sexual episodes changes to a tone of earnest sweetness when she discovers at any rate how she should be. She’s in bed with Israel, and the mood somehow isn’t working; they break off love-making and that comes as a big relief to them both. She realizes that “I didn’t care if he got me wrong. The way he saw me was not the same thing as me,” an insight somewhat mitigated for us when she adds, “My nose went into his ass.” Brown-nosing Israel “felt like the first choice I had ever made not in the hopes of being admired…. It was not to win someone’s regard. Then, from inside of me came a real happiness, a clarity and an opening up, like I was floating upward to the heavens.” (A bit confusing for the American reader, for whom the action has another connotation than the discovery of independence; servility.)
The scenes that follow smack both of the analyst’s chamber and the slumber party: “For all of our fears and all of our certainty, the bonds that unite us will remain a secret from us, always.” But somehow we enjoy the rather facile homilies—“Once you have put a fence around everything you value, then you have the total circle of your heart”—because Sheila the character has so well initiated us into both her funny, girlish self-doubts and ruminations, and her more jaded observations about contemporary “art”:
We live in an age of some really great blow-job artists. Every era has its art form. The nineteenth century, I know, was tops for the novel.
I just do what I can not to gag too much.