How Should A Person Be?, by Sheila Heti, Harvill Secker, RRP£16.99/Henry Holt, RRP$25, 320 pages
In the prologue to Sheila Heti’s third work, The Chairs are Where the People Go (2011), the author explained her approach to writing the book: “I have always liked the way Misha speaks and thinks,” she notes of her friend, performance artist Misha Glouberman, “but writing down the sorts of things he might say and think was never as pleasurable as encountering the things he actually did say and think.” And so, rather than write a novel, Heti takes down Glouberman’s advice on a range of subjects, compiling a charming guide to life, albeit one most useful to time-rich young artists hoping to teach their friends how to play charades.
The characters in How Should a Person Be?, Heti’s latest work, also play games. The narrator is Sheila, who is, like Heti, a Toronto-based writer. Sheila is struggling to write a play commissioned by a feminist theatre company. In the opening act – the book has five, like the play she can’t write – Sheila has brunch with her artsy cohort (based on Heti’s real friends, whose first names are used in the book), who together decide that the two painters in the group, Margaux and Sholem, should compete in an “Ugly Painting Competition”. Later, sitting on a bus in Miami where Margaux’s work is showing at Art Basel, Sheila and Margaux divide artists into two groups. (“I think Manet is funny … Richard Serra’s not funny”).
The games are both trite and meaningful. Sheila is vain, but senses that she must let go of convention in order to fulfil her oversized ambitions – which might explain why, compared with her past works, the sentences in HSAPB are at once carefree, careless, and reaching for meaning: “The world is made up of poets and retards, and everyone’s a poet, and everyone’s a retard,” Sheila notes in the aptly-named chapter “They Wander The City On Drugs”.
Since its American publication last year, Heti’s book has stirred controversy, being called both sloppily written and formally inventive, radically feminist and worryingly self-conscious. Critics have placed Heti within a group of writers – Kate Zambreno, Eileen Myles and the graphic artist Alison Bechdel among them – who use their own lives as material to portray what is often marginalised: conversations between women, the odd rituals of femininity, the kinds of sex not shown on TV. Another example of such a writer is Chris Kraus, whose 1997 work I Love Dick incorporated into its meandering narrative real letters, faxes, and telephone conversations between “Chris”, her husband Sylvère Lotringer, and a man they (really) met, cultural critic “Dick” (later revealed to be the cultural theorist Dick Hebdige). Like Kraus’s work, Heti’s “novel from life” features “real” exchanges and characters, as well as divorce, obsessional love and performance art.
A more famous “semi-autobiographer” is Lena Dunham, creator of the Golden Globe-winning HBO series Girls, currently in its second season, which Dunham has summed up as “smart girls making stupid decisions” – a phrase that captures the show’s ruthless kind of wisdom. Heti’s work, by contrast, might be described as “smart girls making no decisions”. As her Jungian analyst puts it, Sheila is a puer aeternus, Peter Pan-like, constantly seeking purpose in new things – in her job at a hairdresser (“there was a great simplicity to my life when I was there”); in drugs; and in sex with Israel, an artist to whom she devotes herself with the straightforward diligence she cannot summon as a writer. He sets her sexual challenges, like pieces of homework, and she adores him, religiously.
While Sheila “works” for Israel, her tape-recorder does the job of the writer: transcriptions of conversations are dispersed throughout the book. It’s an interestingly self-conscious experiment, if not always an interesting one. A dinner-party conversation between a male theatre director and his playwright collaborator is particularly baggy; the irony of the situation – Sheila and Margaux wait on the men, who are discussing how women in Africa “are doing everything” – feels a bit hard-won.
In another episode, Margaux sends Sheila an email explaining why she is angry: “i know i can be intense sometimes, and i know you have a lot going on, and this is not that big of a deal, but i wanted to say it really startled me in Miami when you bought the same yellow dress that i was buying.”
The book is full of such moments – potentially meaningful, sounding like nothing; and Sheila’s responses are consistently more suited to a teenager than a thirty-something. (As Margaux is forced to say: “i think it’s pretty standard that you don’t buy the dress your friend is buying.”)
It’s a naivety that Sheila cultivates in her glib prose – and one that, ultimately, leads to confusion; as with an intentionally ugly painting, it’s never clear how seriously to take her impressions. Honesty, we find, can lack self-scrutiny; it can also breed a kind of malaise. “In fact, when I think about it, nothing in my life signaled out that I’d be the one,” Sheila writes of her great ambitions. “I don’t know why I thought it.”