How to describe this utterly sui generis work? One might be more faithful to its accomplishment by describing what it is not. Which is: not quite novel, not quite diary, not quite memoir—though it has elements of all three. It is perhaps closest to a gathering of modern-day pensées or sketches, which, taken together, give us a full psychological portrait of the artist.
But it has been marketed as a novel, and so must be read as such. As with all of Heti’s work, How Should a Person Be? takes on its own beautifully idiosyncratic logic. Heti’s debut book, The Middle Stories, was a clever and sharply executed collection of short parables and fables; her novel Ticknor followed the neurotic musings of biographer George Ticknor in an astonishing act of ventriloquism.
How Should a Person Be? continues this tradition of resisting classification. An examination by the writer Sheila Heti of a character named Sheila Heti, the novel charts—through diary-like entries, philosophical asides, transcribed recordings and emails—a group of lively visual artists and their complicated friendships. Heti and her character Sheila Heti are particularly drawn to Margaux Williamson, an oil painter and video artist based in Toronto. As Sheila Heti begins to lose her sense of purpose, she asks herself how to make her life resonate with meaning—how should she be in the world?—and studies those around her in the hopes of coming up with an answer.
Over the course of a year, the character of Sheila Heti moves to New York, takes a trip to Miami with Margaux for an art show, employs a Jungian therapist and engages in a bent relationship with the sexy-but-sinister Israel, whose “killer eyes, huge, jaded, soul-sucking eyes … nice and lazy smile, big thick lashes, and … lips of a real pervert” draw her in despite herself. Israel is an amazing lover, but as things progress, and he asks Sheila to do ever more risqué things like expose herself to an older man at a bar (which she does with disturbing results), and to pleasure herself with a rolled-up magazine, the shine predictably wears off, and she is able to walk away from the relationship. This gesture sets the course of a new kind of personal freedom for her.
The book feels highly personal, self–excoriating and scatological (we are even privy to bowel movements). It is unabashedly sexual without being cheaply pornographic. Heti shows all the earthy, raw appetites of sex without shying from its more embarrassing moments, its disappointments and humiliations, the elusive and always sudden moment when lust dies out.
It is still a rare thing in Canadian fiction for a woman to write this graphically about sex. It is enormously refreshing. Heti is not beyond a little vulgarity, a feature of the most honest sex writing. And although at times this can leave the more squeamish reader unsettled, it also gives the text a searingly intimate quality.
The narrative starts out seemingly asking, What is the best way to live? But one soon gets the feeling that when Heti asks how should a person be, she is asking how should an artist be. If, as she says, “the nineteenth century … was tops for the novel,” then what is its relevance now, when faced with the supposed overall decline of literary fiction and literacy in general? And when you could be doing something much more measurably “useful” in the world, like practising medicine or politics, what does it mean to be a writer or a painter? Not that this novel is at all polemical—far from it. Heti is too playful, too catholic, too frivolous for that. But the artist’s role in the world remains the book’s unifying concern, one she seeks to come to terms with by the novel’s end. She marvels at the utter faith
of her painter friends, convinced that the very act of
living a spontaneous and creative life is a kind of antidote to the world’s sterility. Sheila’s friend Misha explains:
Sholem was saying that freedom, for him, is having the technical facility to be able to execute whatever he wants, just whatever image he has in his mind. But that’s not freedom! That’s control, or power. Whereas I think Margaux understands freedom to be the freedom to take risks, the freedom to do something bad or appear foolish. To not recognize that difference is a pretty big thing …
It’s like with improv … True improv is about surprising yourself—but most people won’t improvise truthfully. They’re afraid. What they do is pull from their bag of tricks. They take what they already know how to do and apply it to the present situation. But that’s cheating! And cheating’s bad for an artist. It’s bad in life—but it’s really bad in art.
This is a novel that abounds with such wisdom, arrived at in fresh and new ways. For all its inventiveness, there is an old-fashioned integrity, an attention to thought in the prose, resulting in unusual and sharp-eyed observations.
But there are pitfalls to such seemingly inward material. It can sometimes slip into navel-gazing, or lapses in self-awareness. In one conversation, Margaux explains her refusal to apply to study art at Yale as “too unfair to even think about … the same as joining a country club that Jews or black people aren’t allowed into.” Later on, she says she “get[s] really excited” thinking about autism:
I think maybe it’s an advantageous human trait. Maybe it’s sort of wonderful to … lack an overwhelming empathy.
I sometimes feel pretty paralyzed by my own feelings of empathy. And it’s still such a problem—shame. Maybe what I want in my life is to cut out a bit of the empathy and a bit of the shame.
This is followed by a break in the narrative, before the passage transitions into:
The next day, after lying under the sun in the sand till noon, we pulled ourselves up and went to see our final fair of the trip, Art Basel, which we had to line up for and pay twenty dollars to get into.
This juxtaposition makes what comes before sound self-indulgent, like privileged middle-class woe. It seems to showcase the very solipsism the novel strives to criticize. There is a distinction to be made between the examined life and the over-examined one. Any life viewed through a microscope risks becoming distorted or losing perspective. Although there are indeed times when this novel veers dangerously close to the over-examined, such episodes are few and far between, and often we are treated to some truly profound ruminations on what it means to be an artist in our indifferent era.
How should a person be? Well, generous, certainly. Empathetic. Spontaneous. Full of gratitude for the people they love and value. Says Sheila, “If [I] get to have a couple of true friendships along the way … then I’ll be at least able to look back on these past few years and say, At least the travelling to it wasn’t all bad.”
But in the end, the lightness of that question mark in the title makes itself felt. This is a novel as much concerned with asking the question as it is with finding the answer. As Heti’s fictional alter ego, Sheila tries on and takes off various ways of being in the world, she comes to a stronger sense of how she should not be. Even the briefest questions, Heti reminds us, can be a lifetime in the answering. What is important is that we ask them.