Book review: Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?
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The title of Sheila Heti’s breakthrough novel — the one that’s being talked about in bohemian enclaves from Williamsburg to Silver Lake, from Toronto to Portland — is How Should A Person Be?, and it’s a real tip-off: It gives off an earnestly wide-eyed vibe while also suggesting loopiness, even a self-conscious (and thus false) naïvete. It’s being hailed by heavyweights (Margaret Atwood, James Woods) and Tumblr’d and tweeted about with the sort of excitement that signals Something New has arrived: a boho novel for the twenty-teens, hip to this literary generation’s sexual codes, its youthful yearnings, its “reality hunger” aesthetic, its fraught combination of innocence and media-saturated knowingness. “A new kind of book and a new kind of person,” gushes author Miranda July on the back cover, “…nothing less than groundbreaking … a major literary work.”
Well, not so fast there, madame blurber. How Should A Person Be? gets under your skin, no doubt about it — I’ve been scratching its itch for days — and it’s got the disarming ingenuousness and fleet-footed ease with experimental prose that beguile the lit-ousie. It’s also got the aspiring artist scene pretty much down: The book’s full of gallery openings, young writers and artists gabbing about art in downtown studios or restaurants, and wry frontline updates from the sex wars (“We live in an age of really great blow-job artists” is the line everybody’s quoting) that makes it seem like Heti’s on the very edge of the zeitgeist. (Even if she isn’t: Philip Roth, from 2001’s The Dying Animal: “This is a generation of astonishing fellators.” Anyway …) Finally, it’s got a narrator and central character, conveniently named Sheila, who — with her impish artistic ideals, her punishing self-doubts, her belief in “destiny,” her charmingly desperate desire for female friendship, her powerful if fleeting enthusiasms, her desire to please men in bed, her titular struggle to find out what kind of person she ought to be — will doubtless garner a generous fan base of artsy collegiate and postcollegiate girls who will fiercely relate.
The book is subtitled “a novel from life,” meaning it’s openly autobiographical. Heti incorporates “real life” texts (like actual e-mails and taped conversations that she cuts-and-pastes verbatim), gives her characters the names of her real-life friends and, presumably, exposes her own foibles. In an interview she gave a few years ago, Heti said, “Increasingly, I’m less interested in writing about fictional people because it seems so tiresome to make up a fake person and put them through the paces of a fake story — I just can’t do it.” Readers of How Should A Person Be? won’t have to worry — she hasn’t tried. No fake people, no fake story. We get Heti and her friends relatively raw, which means fairly intimately; this also means we get them when they’re boring, trite, pretentious or embarrassingly obvious — which is to say, when they haven’t been worked up into compressed and indelible form by the writer. There’s quite a hubbub about the use of real life materials in fiction these days — cf. David Shields’ critical manifesto Reality Hunger — and Heti’s book is probably a good book to use if you want to argue about it. Personally, I found that most of these transcribed conversations and e-mails — which comprise roughly one-third of the text — were just crying out for some decent editing. The occasional frisson you get from serendipitously captured bon mots is drowned out by the drone of tedious and often aimless talk.
But the larger problem takes us back to that title. The novel takes the form of a desultory journey towards identity: How does Sheila become a person, and what kind of person should she be? To dramatize this, Heti gives us some familiar if mostly interesting boho encounters with rude sex, drugs, travel and art — along with some stunningly superficial dalliances with ideas. Heti characterizes herself as one vapid chick at the beginning — “How should a person be?” she asks. “I can’t help answering like this: a celebrity” — and through the first half of the book, she vows to change the world with her playwriting, she craves the sublime (via cocaine), she abases herself in emotionless sex. It’s all horseshit, and we know it, and we have to wait while Sheila learns it. In the end, she basically grasps what her analyst told her on Page 85 — “Choose work that begins and ends in a passion,” and, well, QED. How should a person be? A person should do good work, respect herself and others, clean up her messes, play nice. Everything I learned I learned in kindergarten.
Heti’s only 35, and by today’s standards for writers, she’s a kid till she’s 40, so she’s got time. But goodness, I wish she’d get over the ingenue thing. There are some brilliant passages in How Should A Person Be? (a chapter called, um, “Interlude for Fucking” has some really brave, searing writing), and amidst the blithe stylistic affectations, there’s some stuff that cuts deep. But mostly she’s riding surfaces. Hate to say it about such a charming little book, but sometimes Sheila comes off like an existential dilettante, and that’s no way for a person to be.
How Should A Person Be?, by Sheila Heti, Henry Holt, 306 pages