Heti, Sheila: How Should A Person Be?

Courtesy of House of Anansi Press

Heti, Sheila
How Should A Person Be?
House of Anansi Press, 2012
Paperback (expanded edition) 306 pages

Toronto writer Sheila Heti’s new book How Should A Person Be? has already garnered significant attention, with commentary in Quill & Quire, The Globe and Mail, and the National Post as well as international reaction in The New York Times, Slate Magazine (and also hereThe Paris Review, and perhaps most notably from James Woods in The New Yorker. Reactions are mixed.  Applauded on one hand for genre-bending inventiveness, artistic courage, brutal honesty, sexual frankness, and biting wit, she is criticized on the other for fatuous self-absorption,  pretension, artistic laziness, detachment, evasive vagueness and an irritating style.

The problem…

The difficulties in interpretation arise, it seems, from the book’s unusual premise. This play-like novel, presented in five acts, is narrated by a young woman named Sheila who lives in Toronto, struggles to write, has a coterie of artistic friends with names like Misha, Margaux, Ryan and Sholom and is filled with an exasperating mixture of unbridled ambition and sense of entitlement, narcissism,  paralyzing uncertainty and self-loathing.  The thing is, Sheila the author (as opposed to character) is, herself, a young woman writer who lives in Toronto, and who has a coterie of artistic friends with names like Misha, Margaux, Ryan and Sholom.  Whether she has unbridled ambition and sense of entitlement, is narcissistic, paralyzed with uncertainty and filled with self-loathing, I can’t really say, not knowing her personally. In any case, the intertwining of her fiction with her nonfiction (including names, events, and what are, apparently, actual email communications and transcriptions of taped conversations) makes it difficult for the reader to know where to draw boundaries between fictional Sheila and factual Sheila and whether to approach her writing as autobiography or fiction.  Is the book a loose conglomeration of incidents, stolen straight from real life, lumped haphazardly together by a maddeningly self-absorbed author who leaves it up to the reader to draw some ultimate meaning from it all? Or, is it an admittedly at times perplexing prose experiment that seeks to explore critical aspects of the artistic experience and life, whose quixotic surface floats on accomplished writing that is anything but haphazard and which yields some surprising rewards? This is not a small problem. Based on my own experience, I can state that even rationally defended convictions about Sheila as a created character can be rapidly eroded by the text itself.   Despite its difficulty, this question is, I believe, the critical one for readers, and one which, to a large extent, determines one’s reaction to the book.

I have, personally, chosen to believe that fictional Sheila is just that–an invention — neither pure nor simple, but a fiction nonetheless, used to explore very serious and perceptive questions about art and existence in a quirky, but for me, ultimately successful way.  Why?  For a number of reasons. Firstly, the author herself has said so — giving her book the subtitle, A Novel From Life.  There is really no point in ignoring the obvious.  As she explains in The Paris Review interview, the question of the boundaries between a first-person narrator (in particular) and author has always been troublesome and that it’s a well-recognized if not always overtly acknowledged fact that every writer brings aspects of themselves to their characters.  As she describes, she creates her characters by seeking fragments of her own persona pertinent to the book’s central exploration, and by focusing on these, exaggerates them, while the normal counterbalancing parts of her real personality recede to the background.  She then inhabits this fictional caricature of herself, acting out responses to situations derived from her real environment. She goes on to explain that our modern relationship to fame and celebrity was a  concern for her when writing the book, and she wondered what she might have in common with tabloid starlets like Lindsey Lohan and Paris Hilton when imagining the fictional Sheila into being.  Thus, when fictional Sheila, confronting the book’s deeply philosophical central question of how a person should be,

can’t help but answer like this:  a celebrity

and in the same breath, and without apparent contradiction, claims to want

a simple life, in a simple place,

we see the caricature at work. She goes on to elucidate her idea of a simple life:

…I mean a life of undying fame that I don’t have to participate in.  I don’t want anything to change, except to be as famous as one can be, but without that changing anything. Everyone would know in their hearts that I am the most famous person alive — but not talk about it too much.  And for no one to be too interested in taking my picture, for they’d all carry around in their heads an image of me that was unchanging, startling, and magnetic.  No one has to know what I think, for I don’t really think anything at all, and no one has to know the details of my life, for there are no good details to know.  It is the quality of fame one is after here, without any of its qualities.

and the caricature and the connections become even more obvious. This is not author Sheila Heti accidently revealing her essential self-centred bubbleheadedness through her character, it is a few small fragments of her personality that include narcissism and a lust for celebrity (common to all artists, and, to be honest, all humans) excised from other moderating influences, and set free to play in the world. It’s a starting point.

 So many ideas, so little plot…

There is, admittedly, not much plot — a series of loosely connected episodes, often, on the surface, quotidien in the extreme. Young writer Sheila lives in Toronto, marries, separates, struggles to write a commissioned play, tries to rationalize her way out of completing it, hangs out with her artist friends, works at a beauty salon, makes a new painter-friend, negotiates the terms of this female friendship, has a submissive sexual dalliance which teaches her a thing or two about freedom, control and the dangers of empathy, worries about wasting her genius on the wrong project, learns she doesn’t have much baggage after all, and tries to organize what she sees of beauty, art, craft and love around her into some sort of life plan.

If one wants to find development, arc, movement, and thus evidence of deliberation on the part of the author, one must look past the plot and notice, instead, the progression of ideas, the way in which Sheila quite meticulously examines different ways of being– the practical life, the creative life, the life of service, the religious life, the virtual life, and the increasing confidence with which she begins to answer her own question. We are first introduced to fictional Sheila as the caricature described above, so irritatingly, vacuously, well … young, and apparently shaped only by the external pressures of her time, who says things like,

I know personality is just an invention of the news media. I know that character exists from the outside alone, (1)

and can dismiss the regard of her friends as illusory because,

they like me for who I am, and I would rather be liked for who I appear to be, and for who I appear to be, to be who I am

(a statement which should provoke some soul-searching for anyone with a Facebook account.)

Yes, the character is irritating, self-absorbed, and is, at times, completely wrong with great conviction, yet she must be loved for asking the questions she does. Saved by her honesty and intelligence, in her perplexity she manages to articulate obstacles to self-actualization that bedevil an entire generation. Questions that plague a thoughtful young artist about modern life are, it turns out, remarkably universal.

The issues, for Sheila, can be broken down into two main, interrelated areas:

  1. Identity anxiety
  2. How best to spend one’s life (in the sense of exchange for value)

The real Sheila Heti was once described, affectionately, as “a keen hairsplitter,” and this skill is put to excellent use in the service of fictional Sheila’s examination of identity.  For the obsessive narrator, it splinters into a myriad of sub-questions. Is identity (which she closely equates with destiny) for example, innate, or can one construct one?  If one can construct one’s identity, can one construct any identity, and if so, how on earth should one choose? The early Sheila claims to be a blank slate, with no internal sense of herself.  She, therefore, spends a considerable amount of time analyzing other people in the hopes of finding admirable qualities which she might cut and paste to her own image file. In this sort of proto state, she often betrays a strong allegiance to her external image, as when, reminiscing with Margaux about a trip to Miami, she says:

I am so happy with how we were making everyone jealous with how happy we were in the pool.

On the surface just another vacuously cringe-inducing comment from fictional Sheila, but one which should reverberate darkly with any honest citizen of the social media. Acknowledged here is a part of real self that craves the envy of others.

What if nobody gets it?

Further questions plague the desperately inquisitive Sheila and she quite correctly identifies the essential conundrum of the age of image.  What if one pours one’s life energies into one’s external image (i.e. celebrity) only to find that the audience does not see in it what you intend them to see?  What if the spectators were not really jealous of the happiness, but rather amused, or scornful, or dismissive, or oblivious? This problem of interpretation — that unknowable gap between what the artist means to communicate and what, in fact, the audience finds in the work — is as old as art itself (2).  In an age bewitched by celebrity when everyone can create, curate and broadcast their own artful image, the gap is a vital concern.

So, if a faked, idealized and totally controlled virtual life, (or one stolen from one’s friends) is not the answer, one must, it seems, find a way to live one’s actual life. But what if your genius, your specialness, which your society has led you to believe you must possess and is essential to your self-image, is not immediately apparent?  What if you don’t know what it is?  What if you choose the wrong outlet and you end up ordinary and not famous, and part of you believes this might be the very worst thing.  When is the right time to bail on a project in search of more and quicker fame and how many times can you do this before you become just a quitter? Should one pursue beauty methodically with persistent craftsmanship (it takes so long!) or trust in random inspiration (what if it doesn’t come)? Which is the higher form of artistic practice?  What happens when your big fat sense of entitlement slams into a brick wall of personal limitation?  One could, supposedly, revert to devoting oneself to one’s image (indeed, it occurs to me that here may lie the origins of our present cult of celebrity) but there’s that pesky problem of perception again.

A good portion of the book is occupied with setting out these questions, and many other important ones such as what constitutes love, or friendship, or betrayal, or the nature and consequences of cheating, but as the reader progresses through Act 3 and 4, one can see fictional Sheila making startling progress in her quest to assemble some sort of credible manual for life. She peeks sideways at the possibility that she may not be chosen for greatness, and through the parable of the grilled cheese, articulates a response:

It was not what I wanted, not what I had been picturing, but I adjusted myself to the reality of it.


Better to have your failure right in front of you than the fantasy in your head.

In a particularly poignant epiphany, she understands that she must devote herself to her life and work with or without external validation and accept that she may not be one of the elect.

But if my fate is truly my fate, then trying to escape it by doing whatever I can to make my life resemble some more  beautiful thing will only lead me more quickly to the place I most fear. If there can be no escape from who I am, then I ought to reach my end honestly, able to tell myself, at least, that I have lived it with all of my being, making choices and deciding[…] Who am I to hold myself aloof from the terrible fates of the world?  My life need be no less ugly than the rest.

Sense of entitlement? Checkmate.

Later, having allowed herself to acknowledge the dark as well as the light within herself, she comments on the results of her epiphany

I made what I could with what I had. And I finally became a real girl.

Sheila, here, is far removed from the one we first met, who could proclaim celebrity her ultimate ambition.

Not Random, Not Lazy, Not Haphazard

When one steps back from the plot, or lack thereof, one can see that the book is actually a structured inquiry into life’s most important question. The loosely connected episodes all help, in some way, not necessarily made explicit, to illuminate the fictional Sheila’s questions, dilemmas, and conclusions, and it is a small miracle of writing that Heti manages to convey so much with so little.

Besides a discernible structure, there is much evidence of sly wit and learned seriousness, all of which also speak against randomness. When weighing the advantages and disadvantages of a practical versus a creative life, Sheila makes this comment:

when I compared it [working as a helper in a hair salon] with finishing my play, it seemed so nice and easy.

A smiley face seems called for.

Fluffy pop-punnery aside, there is biting social commentary as well. Any pretensions we may harbour about the cultural advantages of our www existences are annihilated in this acerbic observation:

We live in an age of some really great blow-job artists.  Every era has its art form. The nineteenth century, I know, was tops for the novel.

Jungian psychology is explicitly mentioned — fictional Sheila has a Jungian analyst, who has identified her fear of sustained commitment to her work as a Peter Pan complex. Jung’s ideas about the archetype of rebirth and the transmutation of personality are also suggested in Sheila’s initial state of having “sould” her soul, the erasure of her image at the hands of Uri when he dyes her hair grey, and her emergence as a new person.

Matthew Arnold (someone who worried quite a bit about how we might be) and his haunting poem, Dover Beach, are beautifully invoked in the following lines, found in the chapter examining love:

Above me, the seagulls were lifted across a sky that was dark with night and clouds.  In the distance, it was brighter blue where the clouds broke.  Before me, the ocean was the color of steel.  The waves were coming up onto the shore and pulling themselves back from the shore. I felt exhausted with how long the sea had been doing that for–always, without end.

There are, as well, numerous references to Judaism and the Old Testament which I can only note, being unable to explicate them with any certainty.

There is one further aspect of the book which must be addressed and that is the sexually explicit content which arises from two main sources. First is the submissive, demeaning relationship that Sheila initiates with control-freak Israel. (The name, of course, invites further analysis, but for the moment we’ll agree it’s just a name.) Sheila, eventually and quite satisfactorily, thinks her way out of the predicament, but not before exploring the act of fellatio from a female point of view with exceedingly pithy candor. One simply admires her courage and thanks her for saying things that need to be said.  More troubling is a sado-masochistic undercurrent which surfaces, in particular, in the horrific dream sequence encountered soon after Sheila comes to believe she has betrayed her new girlfriend Margaux’s friendship.  There are clear parallels in content to the blatant manipulation of sex, and the subjugation and objectification of women in mainstream movies, video games and the current epidemic of internet pornography.  It’s as if fictional Sheila’s subconscious teems with these memes, and one intuits a connection to a profound, and probably societally-induced, self-loathing.  Indeed, this sort of content tends to surface in moments of intense existential despair, moments when subliminal and explicit cultural messages about her worth threaten to overwhelm her own shaky sense of self. As such, it has something important to say about the forces arrayed against any modern young women in search of self-definition.

As acknowledged earlier, an encounter with Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be?  can be, at least initially, confusing and readers will have to draw their own conclusions about narrator Sheila’s precise relation to her creator.  The book will, however, reward thoughtful reading with surprising and interestingly intuitive insights into the conundrum of modern existence, a quality I can’t help but relate to the author’s unique method of exploring her subject.  The effort rang true and deep for me.


1. for interesting background see Heti’s interview with a real Ryan

2. Heti has had to contend, head on, with this gap as a result of the publication of this book.

3. Some other thoughts about the fiction/non-fiction conundrum by the ever interesting           Jennifer Quist

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