Perplexed guide for life

An American ‘literary sensation’ offers a complex interaction between fact, fiction and profanity


How Should a Person Be?
By Sheila Heti
Harvill Secker, £16.99

This book crashed like a kind of meteorite into the literary landscape when it was published last year in the US. It was hailed as a major literary work of extraordinary originality — and has now been longlisted in the UK for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (successor to the Orange).

It is a sharp, witty exploration of relationships, art and celebrity culture, which draws extensively on what appear to be real-life conversations with friends. Billed as a novel, it doesn’t really fit any genre, with its blurring of fact and fiction and its frank, conversational and apparently meandering and digressive narrative style.

“Sheila” and her friends, a bunch of artists and writers, live in Toronto, where she aspires to live “a simple life, in a simple place, where there’s only one example of everything.” Her life, at least on the page, appears to be anything but simple, mainly due to a propensity to intellectualise every thought, action or conversation.

The endless reflection that characterises the intersection of Heti’s life with her eponymous narrator’s makes the reader occasionally feel trapped in a hall of mirrors. It doesn’t seem that much fun being Sheila either, incapable as she is of doing anything without wondering what impact she is having on other people.

In Miami for the annual art fair, she and her best friend Margaux (whose friendship with Sheila she unflinchingly dissects in the course of the novel), sneak into a hotel and go for a swim.

Afterwards, she declares: “I’m so happy with how we were making everyone jealous with how happy we were in the pool!” and is taken aback by Margaux’s response: “What! That’s crazy! In my mind we were making ourselves happy. I had no idea anyone was looking at us.”

Sheila is always looking at herself from outside as she struggles in the ebb and flow of various relationships at which she feels she is constantly failing. The plot, such as it is, begins after her marriage has broken down and turns on her long-term struggle with a play she has been commissioned to write (the book is structured as a play, in five acts, with much of it represented on the page as theatrical dialogue).

Fed up with trying to write her play, she takes a job at a hair salon and discovers that she loves the person she is when she is there: “There was a great simplicity to my life… It fulfilled my serving instincts, my desire to uplift humanity.” One of the reasons why she dissects her life as though the life of the writer were uncharted territory is because of being female: “One good thing about being a woman is we haven’t too many examples yet of what a genius looks like. It could be me. There is no ideal model for how my mind should be.

For the men, it’s pretty clear. That’s the reason you see them trying to talk themselves up all the time… I’m thinking of you, Mark Z, and you, Christian B. You just keep peddling your phony-baloney genius crap, while I’m up giving blowjobs in heaven.”

In her quest to work out the mystery of relationships, she learns to give heavenly blowjobs to her non-boyfriend, Israel, with whom she is entangled in a sado-masochistic relationship.

Heti’s parents are Hungarian Jewish émigrés to Canada, and she excavates her Jewish identity in digressions that share a sensibility with the most paranoid of celebrity Jews, Woody Allen — “I used to worry that I wasn’t enough like Jesus,” she writes, “but yesterday I remembered who was my king: a man who, when God told him to lead the people out of Egypt, said, ‘But I’m not a good talker! Couldn’t you ask my brother instead?’… I don’t need to be great like the leader of the Christian people. I can be a bumbling murderous coward like the king of the Jews.”

Such self-regarding angsty cleverness undermines the book’s characters, none of whom, apart from Margaux, is really engaging — which offers one answer to the question Heti poses in her title.

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