How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti (Henry Holt & Co. - June 2012)
There’s this rare and interesting interview with Joseph McElroy that’s up on YouTube. In it, the great American writer—and author of such classics as Lookout, Cartridge! and the famously wrist-defeating Women and Men—is tasked with answering some questions from a group of MFA-ers at the California Institute of the Arts. The clip is bracing, funny (at one point McElroy answers a question that's not been asked yet, after which he looks coolly at the audience and says, um: "do you want to ask the question?"), but its most interesting moment is perhaps also its most unguarded and frank. A student puts it to McElroy: "so where do you see fiction going?" and the writer—after admitting that there are still some "small coteries" where writers take advantage of the creative freedom fiction has to offer—comes back very quickly with this: " . . . the kind of writing that a lot of the younger audiences are going for . . . is thinly-disguised autobiography in the first person, which often doesn't go too far—intellectually or imaginatively."
Sheila Heti’s latest novel, the self-help copping How Should a Person Be?, is an unabashedly first-person, thinly-disguised, autobiographical-kind-of book. It says so right there, in bold print, on the front cover: How Should a Person Be? is “a novel from life,” the sort of book whose back cover is adorned with spec blurbs from anti-making-stuff-up luminaries like David Shields (who calls it “funny and sexy and smart”) as well as modern-day essay-humourists like the great Sloane Crosley. There’s even a blurb from @MargaretAtwood (who apparently, these days, wants to be known more for her twitter username than she does for the history and monarch-killing shtuyf). She says of Heti’s novel that it’s “seriously strange . . . [a] plunge into the quest for authenticity,” and it certainly is one of the more resolutely authentic books in recent memory.
To wit: like Heti herself, the protagonist’s first name is Sheila, and her best friends, Misha and Margaux, are real, eminently-googlable personalities with real jobs and haircuts in the authentic world-outside-the-book that the novel mimics. Sheila, like Heti, is a writer—struggling at book’s-open to finish a play she has approximately zero belief in—whilst squaring up all her free-time by thinking to herself: well, how should a person be? It becomes the question that dominates the entire book; less a narrative than it is a series of searching dialogues and artfully distorted events, each of which attempts to locate some truth in what life is and how we live it. One chapter is titled, simply enough, “Sheila Goes To The Salon,” and it’s just that (she, uh, goes to the salon, ok?). When a chapter mid-novel is titled, “Interlude for Fucking,” it’s a no-brainer about what that chapter, exactly, will entail. It will entail fucking, in a musical-interlude-like fashion. The point being that all these events are deliberately and almost confrontationally dull and raw and—to a point—boring, the crucial salve being Sheila’s voice itself: honest, always-searching in everyone and everything around here for some loose rules—how to be a good person, a better person, how to live?
Which, I hear you, haven’t we heard this one how many times before? And we have. But have we heard it done exactly like this? In a short and tone-setting prologue, Sheila remembers how she used to look back to “all the great personalities down through time” to answer this question, how people like Andy Warhol and Oscar Wilde “seemed to be so perfectly themselves in every way”—“they did things, but they were things”—and how she looks at the people who are alive today and thinks to herself, “These are my contemporaries. These are my fucking contemporaries! We live in an age of some really great blow-job artists.”
And the no-qualms about seeming non-literary vibe continues full-bore throughout the novel. It’s refreshing; Heti commits to it absolutely (one feels that after a book of short-stories and a resolutely fictional novel—the surreal Ticknor—that she herself was rooting around for something vibrant, springy, to-the-point), and even though—on first glance—the sentences may seem naked and lacking a certain muscular push, it’s only so that they can achieve a certain hypnosis on the reader: there are times in How Should a Person Be? where it becomes unclear what’s real and what’s not, and whether through some publishing error you have instead stumbled on the private musings of your best, most literary-inclined friend. Sentences flop around, question each other. There is a chapter just called “Interlude for Fucking.”
Heti’s novel strikes me as one of the first by a young person to be heavily influenced by the creative non-fiction happening right now at places like The Believer, N+1, McSweeney’s, etc. (That she is interviews editor for The Believer is not really a surprise.) We live in a golden age right now of absolutely top-drawer creative non-fiction—recent examples being John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead, Geoff Dyer, and the frequently hilarious, bizarro-rational discourses that Tom Bissell offers us in Extra Lives: Why Videogames Matter and the recently-released Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creativity. Some of the most sterling, on-point and entertaining writing in the language is going down in non-fiction right now. And, to my mind, fiction—in terms of the three basic tenets: emotional truth, exhuming the language, and making people care—is flagging some ways behind.
Sure, there’s The Ask by Sam Lipsyte, sure, which brims with a stylistic insouciance all its own, and The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus was really good, but I can’t remember a novel in the past couple of years that has moved me as thoroughly as, say, Tom Bissell’s recount of his time spent vanishing cocaine in a Las Vegas hotel room, whilst hundreds of hours deep into Grand Theft Auto IV , or the essay in Dyer’s Working the Room, where the writer describes, in gentle and heart-swellingly understated terms, how he met and then committed to his then-future-wife. These aren’t—no offence—wildly extraordinary topics to be writing about, but the execution—a sort of personality-to-the-fore approach where in-jokes share stage-room with public pronouncements and a sort of rabid mordant wit, all washed down with the sugar pill of coherent, well-written sentences—is something else. It really can’t be mimicked—like say, DFW’s novels or Hemingway can be mimicked—because the finished product is never really there, or at least not in the way a real novel is “there.” There’s a flexibility to these writers’ approach—an emphasis on sequencing as well as content—that Heti is clearly influenced by.
How Should a Person Be? is never really “there,” either. Yes, there is a conclusion to Sheila’s quest—and it’s a satisfying one—but the route there is messy and at a remove from the rules and conventions this type of book usually bends towards. There are moments where the text breaks into play-speak, aimless discussions about Werner Herzog and Harmony Korine, or where Heti is flagrant about leaving a tape running to record her friends’ discussions—only to transcribe and insert them later in the book. Is this, like, “proper” writing? What it is, to me, and to paraphrase Herzog, is a kind of “ecstatic truth” that redeems, beat for beat, every page of the book—as aimless and un-forthright as a lot of it seems, the book in the final instance is deeply felt and effective. What happens in How Should a Person Be? may at times be absolutely real or slightly distorted—but ultimately that isn’t the point. It can be a truly creative memoir or a thinly disguised attempt at fictionalising a personal crisis: does it really matter? It’s in the high-wire straddling of this difficult line, sentence by sentence, where one feels Heti has done full justice to herself and created something really worthwhile.