January 18, 2013 6:33 pm

The Diary: Sheila Heti

Striving to be bad, Harmony Korine’s ‘Spring Breakers’ and the art of storytelling
An illustration by Luke Waller depicting an experience of the movie 'Spring Breakers'©Luke Waller

Monday January 7

At 9am, I stopped in to look at my friend’s apartment by the light of day (or rather, the light of a heavily overcast sky). It was hard to tell the night before what I thought of the place, seeing it in the dark. For the past week I have been looking for a studio away from home, a place where I could work without the distraction of household chores, and this woman had written to offer to rent me a room in her house. But though the rooms she showed me were beautiful and without flaw – freshly painted, clean, sparse, and elegantly furnished with vintage finds – I couldn’t imagine working there without a feeling of impatience. It didn’t have that necessary “ship” feeling – a ship that could sink or is already sinking. I didn’t know how to tell that to her, “Your house is not sufficiently a sinking ship.” I spent the next half-hour riding public transit, idly coming up with a more plausible lie.

By 10am, I was sitting in a near-empty cinema. The fashion magazine I write for has arranged for me to interview one of my favourite artists, Harmony Korine, so I gathered with a few other journalists to see Spring Breakers , the latest film he’s directed.

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Four girls with enviable youth, beauty, beautiful flesh, and lovely breasts (who spend most of the movie in bikinis) rob a chicken shack so they can attend spring break, an adventure that begins as “fun” but becomes increasingly dangerous. I loved the film, love everything Korine does, trust him as an artist utterly, yet spent the whole 90 minutes wishing I was younger, or that when I had been younger, I had realised how young I was and had taken advantage of it by either robbing people or wearing bikinis. Why hadn’t I been as bad, careless and cool as these girls? Why wasn’t I that way now? Could I ever hope to cross the line from striving to be good to striving to be “bad”? Or would that be as unlikely as hoping to end up in China by simply crossing the street?

I am writing this in a coffee shop. I should get a coffee. I finished my hot cocoa an hour ago. Those girls would not read, on their cell phones, Getting Things Done, the famous productivity manual, like I have been doing all week. Their list of things to do would not include, “Clean spot on skirt” but, rather, “Steal money and party.” It’s too late for me. Maybe it’s not too late. Why should I fear the utter collapse of my life if I suddenly become “bad”? That is what I will do this week. Not be good. Be bad.

Tuesday January 8

Last night I visited (for a second time) my favourite apartment of the ones I’ve seen, and asked the couple if they would lower the rent, since I will not be living with them but only working there days. We drank herbal tea, which the woman prepared, and the man said he would think about my offer. I returned home to my boyfriend and we watched the second episode of Breaking Bad, which is so good, the plot so fast and fascinating, and the characters really engaging and funny. Now that there are these impeccable serial dramas, writers of fiction should feel let off the hook more – not feel obliged to worry so much about plot or character, since audiences can get their fill of plot and character and story there, so novelists can take off in other directions, like what happened with painting when photography came into being more than a hundred years ago. After that there was an incredible flourishing of the art, in so many fascinating directions. The novel should only do what the serial drama could never do.

Wednesday January 9

Oh, happy day! I just interviewed Harmony Korine for half an hour over the phone and, though I could have kept him longer, I was satisfied with what I got. It was one of those rare experiences of meeting an art hero and not coming away disappointed one bit. When he was younger, in interviews, he would always make up tall tales in response to any question; be playful and elliptical and guarded and generous, and I dreaded that he would be this way with me. But he was clear and answered my questions sincerely. I didn’t feel compelled to drain him dry as one sometimes does when interviewing. This feels new. And I was reminded of what my friend and downstairs neighbour Sholem Krishtalka was talking about after I invited him up for scotch, both of us feeling morose and depressed the other night. We were talking about why one expects so much of one’s romantic partner. He brought up the story of how Moses wanted water, and God said to hit a rock with a stick and water would come but Moses hit the rock too hard (being so desperate for the water), and because he hit it so hard, God punished him and didn’t give him any water.

I feel like I didn’t make the Moses mistake with Korine. That is something I would like to apply to all of life and really learn: how not to hit the rock so hard.

In the afternoon, I began The Dude and the Zen Master, which just came in the mail. It’s a wonderful book of conversations between the American actor Jeff Bridges and his Zen guru Bernie Glassman, which was reviewed well but not as well as it should have been. It’s about acting and Zen and the long, fond relationship between these men. At one point Glassman says, “There’s a little ditty that sort of sums this up” – the problem of being so attached to outcomes that you can’t function. He begins to sing, “Row, row, row your boat/ gently down the stream./ Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily/ Life is but a dream.”

And that song is like Moses with the stick: the important thing is gently.

Thursday January 10

While eating lunch at a nearby Vietnamese place, I read “Little Red Riding Hood” from Philip Pullman’s new interpretation of the Grimm fairy tales because that story has been spinning around in my head; the idea that the plot of Spring Breakers echoes it slightly. I want to reread it to see if I’m right. I decide I am.

The Pullman version of the story is great but nothing will top his rendition of “The Frog Prince”, which has an ending I have never encountered before – apparently, its original ending – which hit me like a fire truck in the chest when I read it.

Walking home from lunch, my conversation with Korine is still present in me; his transparency, his lack of pretence, that openness that verges on innocence, and his unquestioning drive. I check myself all over and find no great longing to be 17, beautifully furnished with tight, bouncy skin and coolness and bleached-out hair. Who wants to be a bad girl? Isn’t it more fun to be the artist who invented them?

Sheila Heti’s ‘How Should a Person Be?’ (Harvill Secker) is published in the UK this week

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