CANADIAN WRITER SHEILA HETI'S breakthrough novel How Should a Person Be? recounts the author’s faux-epic quest for a personal life; or more specifically, a life that will support and engender a kind of writing she can believe in. How Should a Person Be? was written from 2005 — when Heti was 28 – through 2012. Her beautifully crafted short-story collection, The Middle Stories, had been published four years prior. Ticknor, her first novel (a historical fiction revolving around the relation of a 19th-century biographer towards his subject) had just been published in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux under then-editor Lorin Stein. As a young, married woman writing intelligently and poetically about “serious” subjects that had little to do with her own experience, Heti was poised for a distinguished career as a writer of “difficult” high literary fiction.
But then things broke down. As “Sheila,” the protagonist of How Should a Person Be? tells it, she’d been commissioned to write an original play for a Toronto feminist theater company and found that she just couldn’t do it. Not only was the plot she’d submitted horribly contrived, she didn’t know anything about women! As she writes: “… the whole time I was married, I was concerned only with men — my husband in particular. What women had to say to one another, or how a woman might affect another, I did not know.”
And thus begins Heti’s quest. To describe How Should a Person Be? as a faux-epic isn’t to say that her struggle is fake. Quite the reverse. Heti, who studied playwriting and theater rather than creative writing, is intensely aware of the dialectic that binds art with artifice. In this book, she channels all of her gifts — as a playwright, philosopher, a Jewish stand-up comedian, a writer of precise lyrical prose, and a great blow-job artist — towards her efforts to answer the titular question, which, in the spirit of that same dialectic, is at once coy and profoundly serious. Doesn’t every real work of fiction pose the same question? Just as Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps (written at the same age) was an explosive and thrilling rejoinder to the serious, male coming-of-age saga exemplified during her era by Sartre’s The Age of Reason, Heti’s book exuberantly appropriates the same, otherwise tired genre to encompass female experience. How Should a Person Be?’s deft, picaresque construction, which lightly-but-devastatingly parodies the mores of Toronto’s art scene, has more in common with Don Quixote than with Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls or the fatuous blogs and social media it will, due to its use of constructed reality, inevitably be compared with. What is an epic quest for a girl? Exiled from the epic’s universal narration, Heti is aware of pitfalls. She lays out her cards in the Prologue:
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&rsqu...