While reading this book, my exasperated groaning-rate was higher than usual. The whole thing reads like an ‘about me’ section from the early days of social media, like an all too earnest myspace page. Sheila Heti, the author, has written a story about representation and constructing a self through art. Her namesake protagonist wants to be an artist so she can present her life and thereby give it meaning; if she’s famous, everything she does will be meaningful. The tone of the book is exasperating and enervating. Sheila thinks very highly of herself and is depressed that she has no reason to. But I can’t dismiss this novel; I think this is a deliberately ugly book. Like the characters Margaux and Sholem, who compete to create the uglier painting, Heti seems to have gone out of her way to make this novel unappealing. The writing is both bland and grandiose, not melodious, technically accomplished, or any of the characteristics readers are used to appreciating. The sentences are awkward and unpolished. Sheila is self-absorbed, shallow, immature. Throughout the novel, she shuns actions and goals commonly valued – effort, work, dedication, mastery – and, towards the end, decides that rather than try to remedy her self-diagnosed “ugly” soul, she must embrace and express its ugliness. This conscious decision to deny herself a search for beauty and fame is mirrored in the writing itself, and it works.
My number one mental block in reading is to do with fiction written in the first person: I can’t ignore the common mismatch between the narrator’s voice and her background. So often the narrator takes on the voice of an author who has spent a lifetime honing her craft, while the character usually hasn’t. After reading not a few novels like this, the scenario became unrealistic and clichéd to me. When I encounter it now my mind objects, disbelief fully engaged. But in How Should a Person Be? the narrator’s voice fits perfectly. It would be weird for Sheila to speak in amazing sentences, she has a terrible personality and way of thinking. Instead of displaying her way of life – her demand for minimum effort and maximum image – via skillful and beautiful writing, Heti presents it in the same way as the character would have: the writing reads like a diary and the reader fully believes that this is how Sheila experiences the world. This a conscious choice of representation, as the sections that look back on the main story show a narrator fully capable of reflecting on her past and her ideas. These interludes were the best parts of the book – well-written, funny, insightful – but also, oddly, the most disheartening; they’re there to show that the author knows what she’s doing. “Yes, I can write well, but in this novel I won’t, and here’s why.” The disclaimer itself isn’t so much the problem, rather its necessity.
The reader is challenged to consider notions of passivity and action, free will and fate, success and failure, art and life, because Sheila herself seems unable to do so to the standards we have come to expect from novels and geniuses.
The titular question of How Should a Person Be? might be more about what makes a good novel than what makes a good person. Sheila, who asks the question, doesn’t do much to try to answer it, despite claiming otherwise, but the book itself does a lot of work to try to find out how a novel should be. Not through its stylistic variety, though it incorporates bullet point emails and transcribed recordings of conversations, but because of the markedly unliterary way it deals with ideas that we’re used to taking quite seriously. The reader is challenged to consider notions of passivity and action, free will and fate, success and failure, art and life because Sheila herself seems unable to do so to the standards we have come to expect from novels and geniuses. Heti shows us our expectations by foiling them and allows us to think critically about them precisely because Sheila doesn’t.
Sheila is a young woman who has a pretty decent life: a husband she likes, a commission to write a play for a theatre and enough money to sustain a lifestyle that consists mainly of throwing parties. However, she is unhappy, by her own account because she didn’t choose this life herself, but was carried here by fate. It all just sort of happened. To remedy the unease she feels, she leaves her husband, takes a job at a hair salon and begins a relationship with a man named Israel. She presents this as evidence of her freedom to choose, while describing the decisions as being made for her: she leaves her husband because of a force she feels building within herself, as something separate from Sheila proper; she wants to work at a hair salon because this was the result of an aptitude test she took in high school, and the salon she ends up working at was suggested by her Jungian analyst; she undertakes a sexual relationship with Israel because he tells her to. Not a great case for the notion of free will. All these elements, as well as her relationship with her best friend, Margaux, are what make up the novel. Sheila agonises over everything, but doesn’t really do much of anything. She buys a recorder (because she is inexplicably drawn to it, she claims, or, as the reader might later infer, more likely because the former director of her unfinished play owns one) and tapes her conversations with Margaux in order to find out how a person should be. She makes Margaux her muse in life and in art, and, like all muses, Margaux’s image is used to represent something without much consideration for her own thoughts and ideas. Generally, in contemporary discourse of art and its histories, there is a recognition of the woman artist as an uncomfortable character; as a woman, how do you work in a tradition known for objectifying women? Sheila, though a writer, comes to embody this discomfort when she objectifies Margaux and Margaux objects. The muse won’t stay silent and the artist can’t ignore her. This poses a huge test for their friendship throughout the narrative.
Sheila’s approach to finding out how to be reveals a lot about how she thinks. Instead of asking people about their values, researching the long history of thought on this subject, or speaking to priests or professors who have spent their lives studying ethics, she thinks she can simply copy her friends, like a personality magpie. Her view of people is inconsistent; she can copy other traits and views, but doesn’t think of herself as a blank slate, as she repeatedly states that she is full of innate badness. She never covers if other people can copy her or where their traits come from: are they inherent to them or have they copied them from someone else? Her reasoning throughout the novel is flawed and it’s clear that she doesn’t think critically about her ideas or thought processes. If she has an impulse to leave Toronto immediately she does just that, and picks her destination based on her (miscalculated) odds of becoming an important artist if she spends time there. Her application of other people’s ideas to her own life are also hugely misguided, for example when she uses Margaux’s expression, “he was just another man trying to teach me something.” Margaux said this after ending her correspondence with a man she’d been exchanging emails with for months; Sheila uses her expression to describe leaving a shop with a chatty owner.
The nice thing about writing an ugly novel on purpose is that if parts of it aren’t good, you can say that this was your intention. The problem with writing an ugly novel on purpose is that if you succeed, you end up with an ugly novel. Although Heti has succeeded (this book is very ugly), this does not make it a bad book.
We aren’t told much about Sheila’s background. We know that she is Jewish, her parents are divorced, she has attended lectures on Jung and art history, but the specifics are missing. Her world revolves around Margaux, herself and their very entangled friendship. Margaux and Sheila’s codependence makes me doubt how healthy their relationship is. Both seem dramatically invested in this friendship, as if it’s a romantic relationship. This is obviously a comment on how female friendships are as, if not sometimes more, valuable to women than sexual relationships with men, and though I agree, I’d argue that this particular attachment is not necessarily something to aim for. Neither have had female friendships before, which might explain why both rampantly idealise each other. As with harbouring unrealistically high expectations of your friends, most of this book is about things you should generally avoid: giving up, running away from your problems, leaving people without giving them an explanation or letting them know that the relationship is in trouble before it’s already too late, etc. Maybe that’s why it was a bit disappointing that Sheila seems to realise this in the end: she comes back to Toronto, faces her problems, finishes what she has started. What seemed like a “fuck you” to expectations from everyone – morals, society, men – becomes an “ok, yeah, this is better.”
The nice thing about writing an ugly novel on purpose is that if parts of it aren’t good, you can say that this was your intention. The problem with writing an ugly novel on purpose is that if you succeed, you end up with an ugly novel. Although Heti has succeeded (this book is very ugly), this does not make it a bad book. Any tradition where value has historically been defined in gendered terms is hard to negotiate for both women and men. How to paint? How to write? Do I do my own thing or do I align myself with traditional goals? Sheila, instead of trying to beat the geniuses at their own game (serious! Universal! Beautiful!) goes in the opposite direction (frivolous! Self-centred! Ugly!). This isn’t necessarily the best way to go about it, as it maintains the false binary of Male Genius and Silly Woman (i.e. feminists will be pissed) and hails the lesser one (i.e. traditionalists will be pissed). But Heti’s self-destructive impulse is appealing. There’s a “fuck everything” element to it that I find delightful.
How Should a Person Be? points out literary norms and how arbitrary these are. By messing with the hierarchy of binaries – high vs. low culture, beauty vs. ugliness, good vs. bad – it forces us to ask questions about what we value as a culture and how we judge novels. Why should this novel be considered bad? Because it deals with issues that aren’t traditionally valued in novels? Because it sees those traditions and denies their value? This isn’t a case for relativism, don’t even go there. Rather, the point might be that although ‘ugly’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘bad’, it also doesn’t necessarily mean ‘good’. The novel irritated me into doing everything Sheila won’t: work, think, reconsider; both in general and in the case of this novel. For that, though I disliked reading it, I like this book.