The Substance of Style #003: How Should a Person Be?

Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? is a page-turner: entertaining, boring-entertaining, and guilt-inducing, like the infinite scroll feature on someone else’s news feed or looking up mountaineering jargon on Wikipedia for peaks you will never scale, but feeling good anyway.

There’s no usual sweet line marking this book as “a novel” or “a memoir.” Instead the cover reads, “a novel from life.” The book’s narrator-protagonist is named Sheila, and book-Sheila’s friends have names identical to author-Sheila’s friends. They all live in Toronto.

Interviews with Heti reveal a bit on the role of fiction in the book, but it’s better not to know. It’s better to be – at every moment – uncertain of whether an exchange, as brutal or as tender, is drawn from life. To have the thrill of believing it happened to a human being in real life, then to shake out of it and ask, as the book does, “Who cares?”

On a conceptual level, it raises interesting questions about the role of the author, which is very much a part of Heti’s concern on personhood, genius and success, the difference between being art and being an artist, on beauty and the one who proliferates beauty.

Sheila and her friends are attractive young creatives, writers, artists. They make fun of ugly people with off-handed ease. Heti does not hide their ugliness.

The book documents in prose, email excerpts, and transcribed dialogue Sheila’s attempts (or lack of) to write a play commissioned by a feminist theater group. They’ve told her it doesn’t have to be feminist, but it has to be about women. Sheila’s stumped. Because she can only write about men. She’s only ever loved men.

Structured in five Acts, this book becomes the play that fails to be written. And almost unwittingly, it emerges as an ode to female friendship, a love letter to Heti’s best friend, artist Margaux Williamson.

Heti offers a stark, naked, realist perspective on feminism that feels exciting and new. Whether or not she embraces the term, Heti is obviously concerned with women’s experience, and wanting be a woman genius, which she points out as having no historical precedent, and thus different from  being a genius man (“easier” – Sheila could be the first!).

And if “it has to be about women,” then it’s also about men. The book contains many graphic sexual encounters, but not one feels gratuitous or for mere shock value.

For all its ugly contents and coarse language, Heti has a sophisticated way with themes and metaphors that never beats you over the head. Her negotiation with Jewish biblical history in the book is particularly well-done.

At one point in the book, working at a salon, Sheila distinguishes between two types of hairdressers: the artist who will take the liberty to color your hair when you didn’t ask for it, and the craftsman who takes pride in his masterful control of his hand.

Heti’s struck that rickety, imperfect balance between the craftsman’s excellence and the artist’s freedom – and by imperfect, I mean uglyly beautiful.

How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti, Henry Holt & Company, 2012.

The Substance of Style is a series on new works by “hip young writers.”

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