Fiction Goes to Bed With Autobiography
How Should a Person Be?
by Sheila Heti
Review by Genevieve Hudson
omething strange happened to me when I plucked Sheila Heti’s newest novel from its shelf at Powell’s Books. How Should a Person Be? had been out for months, and yet I had not heard of it, or of Heti, until the title was mentioned in an essay Roxane Gay wrote on “How to Be Friends With Another Woman.” Her mention was enough to send me on a Google search (Lena Dunham, creator of “Girls,” cites Heti as one of her favorite authors), and then an actual search. My intention was normal enough: read the first page to see if I should buy it. The result found me cross-legged and cramped over a cup of cold coffee in the aisles of Powell’s Books, where I stayed, totally absorbed, for the next who-knows-how-many hours as I gorged on 200-plus pages of Heti’s novel-from-life.
How Should a Person Be?, which was chosen as one of The New York Times’s 100 Notable Books of 2012, is what happens when fiction goes to bed with autobiography. In this case, their kid is an odd, artsy intellectual who breaks both ground and heart. The narrator of How is not so coincidentally called Sheila, and the cast of characters—Margaux, Misha, Sholem—share names with Heti’s real-life friends. The book is set in Toronto, where the cadre lives. Heti fills the book with tape-recorded conversations from her actual life with these actual friends. The novel slips between truth and fiction in a way that is both seamless and provocative. The question in the back of my mind was always: Is this part true? Followed quickly by: Does it matter? The novel emerges as part of an exciting spate of recent literature that blurs genre, that throws the private into the public without apology.
Lines like this touch the pulse of Heti’s experiment-gone-novel: “I’m doing a lot, what with letting you tape me,” Margaux says, “but—boundaries, Sheila. Barriers. We need them. They let you love someone.” Heti puts her friendship with painter Margaux on display. She exposes and explores the complicated landscape of female affection without eroticizing it. She brings light to the kind of jealousy, possessiveness, and mutual obsession and adoration between her and her best friend in a way that is true and, yes, beautiful. It calls into question the way female friendship can be misrepresented in media portrayals. Sheila and Margaux’s codependency is seen as an important aspect of the women’s development as people and artists and thinkers and makers. They love each other in a deep way that, although it is not sexual, is every bit as essential, if not more, than their relationships with their lovers.
Heti and her artist cohort approach the cliché of working creative intellectuals, but remain just far enough from cliché to remain interesting. They are of course preoccupied with questions about what it means to make art today, but Heti in particular is also concerned with what it means to be a personality. She raises questions about purpose and legacy and meaning in ways that are humorous and self-conscious and raw. For example, she says, “I look to all the people who are alive today and think, These are my contemporaries. These are my fucking contemporaries! We live in the age of some really great blow-job artists. Every era has its art form. The nineteenth century, I know, was tops for the novel.” She then goes into excruciating and hilarious detail about the specifics of giving a great blow-job. She highlights bodily sensations in a way that feels almost uncomfortably personal. Heti follows this blow-job thought by saying: “One good thing about being a woman is we haven’t had too many examples yet of what a genius look like,” and here comes the punch line: “It could be me.” Then, if she hadn’t already pointed out the disparity of gender portrayal in our national consciousness obviously enough, Heti writes, “I laugh when they [the male “genius”] won't say what they mean just so the academics will study them forever. I’m thinking of you, Mark Z., and you, Christian B. You just keep peddling your phoney-baloney genius crap, while I’m up giving blow jobs in heaven.”
The reason for my inability to stop reading Heti was in its realness. I don’t just mean the actual realness of narrator “Sheila” or the transcribed “true” conversations with her not-so-made-up secondary character. When I say real, I’m talking about the authenticity of subject. Heti approaches the question of what it means to be a woman artist today with a sincerity that won’t yield. She grants us the gift of voyeurism. She puts her body, graphically, on display, and doesn't shy away from telling us dark and disturbing thoughts. Heti is a little bit delusional and a little bit uncertain and a little bit of a copycat, but for these things she is all the more human. By bringing her bruises into the public’s gaze, Heti dares to reveal the areas of vulnerability that are often covered in the cloak of fiction. She writes herself into her work in a way that wakes us up and makes us think, really, about how a person should be.
Genevieve Hudson writes and makes her home in Portland, OR. Her work has appeared recently in Tin House (online), The Collagist, Knee-Jerk, Thought Catalog, and Word Riot.