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’m up giving blowjobs in heaven.
Leaving her marriage as abruptly as Elizabeth Gilbert’s in Eat Pray Love (and riding, like Gilbert, a groundswell of inner torment), Heti will abandon, return to, and ultimately finish the play in the form of this novel. In the process, she will train as a hair stylist; briefly move to New York; apprentice herself to, and then leave, a Dominant BDSM partner who she meets in the art world; consult a Jungian analyst; and forage the urban landscape for commercial signage that might offer a clue to her destiny. But most importantly, she’ll become friends with “Margaux,” a character drawn, or, in the case of this novel, literally transcribed, from the real-life painter and artist Margaux Williamson.
It is this friendship that drives the book’s narrative. And for all of the wildness contained in Heti’s account of her struggles, the book is perfectly composed within the classical structure of five-act dramatic narrative. When, after a long, frightening courtship conducted mostly on email, the two finally become friends, Sheila’s world opens up. Entranced by her new friend’s assurance in the face of her continual self-doubt as a painter, Sheila seizes upon the idea of recording their conversations. Purportedly, she does this as a playwriting aid, thinking that transcribing their conversations will give her some clues as to how female characters talk to each other. But really, Sheila’s goal is to annex Margaux’s soul (or her “sould,” as Heti continually mis-types it). And this intent — perceived by the wise and exceptionally patient Margaux — triggers the book’s third-act crisis.
After a three-day trip to Miami Art Basel, during which Sheila buys the same yellow dress as her friend, Margaux rebels in an email: “i should have been clearer in the store about how it made me uncomfortable … i really do need some of my own identity. And this is pretty simple and good for the head.” Stunned, Sheila retreats. For several weeks, the two friends don’t see each other. Sheila’s search for a soul, any soul, becomes increasingly frantic. Finally Margaux appears to offer a reconciliation: “…boundaries, Sheila. Barriers. We need them. They let you love someone. Otherwise you might kill them.” Reunited, the two begin a cycle of prolific painting and art-making by day, fuelled by nightly inebriation. Margaux makes Sheila a generous tape in which she records her observations on fame and rewards, presence and beauty, which Sheila proceeds to transcribe and weave into a story. When Sheila asks Margaux to read this new work, her friend feels the extent to which she’s been violated, with her whole being. She paints herself as the fat, chubby-cheeked Buddha; a grotesque manifestation of the sage Sheila’s portrayed. And then she stops painting.
Devastated by the damage she has done to her friend, Sheila finds that remorse can be one of the most powerful animating emotions. During a masterfully played and genuinely searching Dark Night of the Soul, she ponders:
In the beginning, the gods gave us liberty; in the end, we discovered cheating … We have found that, in our freedom, we have wanted to be like coke to the coke addict, food to the starving person, and the middle of the night to thieves … [There are] three ways the art impulse can manifest itself … When we try to turn ourselves into a beautiful object, it is because we mistakenly consider ourselves to be an object, when a human being is really the other two: a gesture, and a reproduction of the human type … And the cheater breaks her own heart.
Sheila departs for New York in the (faux) hope of becoming an Important Artist, flees to Atlantic City and returns home to Toronto where, at the end of a very long Act Three, she reconciles with Margaux. The last two acts come tumbling down. Sheila obliquely breaks up with her sadist (who, while a sexual genius, is a very bad artist) by, for the first time in her life, willfully making herself unattractive. And — as if by reward from the same gods she’d summoned during that long night before leaving Toronto — Margaux acknowledges that Sheila’s appropriative work is, in fact, an homage. All Margaux asks is that Sheila finish the play as a compensation for both of their sufferings. And it need not be a literal play! And then the curtain comes down, followed by a short, sweet finale.
Heti’s use of real art-world names, real events, real conversations and correspondence, owes a large debt to the work of the late Kathy Acker, which, due to our short cultural memory, might be obscured by the tedious arguments for and against the “generational narcissism” of social media. Like Acker, she is a brilliant, original thinker and an engaging writer. But whereas Acker’s work was written mostly in scabrous rage, Heti’s world-view is more conciliatory. Throwing fragments of chaos into the air and arriving at order, Heti’s work mimics a Shakespearean form, while Acker’s métier was closer to the bloody and bawdy revenge dramas of John Ford and Christopher Marlowe.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that while Acker’s recorded life took place in New York, London, Berlin and San Francisco, Heti remains near the place where she was born, in Toronto. As she writes in the Prologue: “My hope is to live a simple life, in a simple place, where there’s only one example of everything.” Despite their prolific drinking and drugging, Sheila and her friends are, at bottom, quite wholesome: they hold most of their conversations during walks, they ride their bikes to each other’s houses. Through related activities, Heti has done a great deal to bestow the glamour of a large international city upon the art-friends who appear in How Should a Person Be? cameos. Heti’s Toronto is a place where artists and writers support each other’s efforts. In 2011, she collaborated with Margaux Williamson’s partner Misha Glouberman on The Chairs Are Where the People Go, a kind of self-help book published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Earlier this year in Toronto, to participate in a panel discussion on female sex writing she’d organized with Margaux Williamson and the writer Tamara Faith Berger, I visited her in the modest but lovely apartment she shares with her boyfriend, a cat and a large, tame peach rabbit. We ate tortellini while outside, early perennials popped out of snow banks.