Making Meaning out of Randomness: On Sheila Heti’s “Alphabetical Diaries”

By Julia BerickApril 3, 2024

Making Meaning out of Randomness: On Sheila Heti’s “Alphabetical Diaries”

Alphabetical Diaries by Sheila Heti

CY TWOMBLY, the American abstract expressionist, is best known for his graffiti-like paintings scrawled in large loops. He is less known for his photography, although it may reveal more of his perspective than his painting does. Cabbages, carnations, Carrara marble—they’re all reimaged through Twombly’s lens. The photographs are lush and confectionary, textured and intimate. I experienced this same intimacy when I read Alphabetical Diaries (2024), the first book-length work of nonfiction from Sheila Heti.

Heti is a Canadian writer with an interest in Oulipian constraints and performance art elements. Her best-known novel, How Should a Person Be? (2010), was written with the support of recordings she made of conversations with her friends and lovers. Pure Colour (2022), her most recent novel, is an almost mythic allegory involving a long spell in which two of the characters become a leaf. Her autobiographical novel Motherhood (2018) features a dialogue with fate, rendered as literally as possible when a character repeatedly throws coins in the mode of the I Ching to determine, among other unanswerable questions, whether she should have a child.

The technique in her new book is perhaps the most straightforward and enjoyable of her oeuvre—her version of Twombly photographs. Alphabetical Diaries is drawn from a decade’s worth of Heti’s own diaries, about 500,000 words that she separated out into single-sentence strands and then alphabetized. The result is a kind of Symbolist poetry (made with a cyborg apprentice), with a glancing nod to the tradition of the commonplace book, a sort of personal encyclopedia of the owner’s favorite quotes, facts, and memories.

Because of the conventions of English, the first page opens with “A book,” and Heti never misses an opportunity to make fortuitous play between chance and meaning. The randomization of the sentences is immediately compelling, trained as so many of us are to the disjointed syncopation of social media and text messages. There are enough personal disclosures to reassure the reader that she is really reading a diary. Any woman who has kept one will recognize the painful repetitions of heartbreak, yearning, and romantic disappointment. Certain names (pseudonymous or otherwise) pepper the text: when the “L” section comes around, a certain Lars dominates the page as he seems to have dominated the diarist, for better or worse. The diary brought me into a rapid felt intimacy with Heti: like any girlfriend, I found that I disliked certain of her beaus (e.g., Vig) immediately and felt vindicated with each small revelation of their shallowness and misdeeds.

Patterns emerge quickly enough to compensate for the lack of narrative order, with the reader becoming part linguist, part voyeur. Sentences that start with “actually” end up being more chiding; with “afterwards,” more resigned. Heti writes often about New York and Los Angeles, and their twinning shows us that she sees both cities as stages as much as places. Like many contemporary artists, she seems unsure if she should commit to these epicenters of American culture, resistant as she is to all the showboating and competition.

While the book is a bit “everywoman’s diary,” it is also clearly a writer’s diary, and I suspect that young women writers will connect with her views. “I am not ambitious to live in New York and know all the fancy people,” she writes; “it’s enough for me to know only a few.” She can capture a full-blown fantasy in a single sentence: “I will return to the agent I liked from the spring, and perhaps he can sell my story to The New Yorker, which will make me enough money to live there for seven or eight months.” For those who follow Heti—her work and her circle—it can be as titillating to speculate about which editor rejected her novel as to hear about the way Pavel prefers fellatio.

Heti apparently began working on the project that became this book shortly after finishing How Should a Person Be? and was going to publish it as early as 2013 with Fitzcarraldo Editions (the book’s UK publisher). In a recent interview, she said she is relieved that she didn’t, as the events of the diary, and the people in it, were too close in time for her to get a good view of herself. Certainly, it is clear that she has been editing the work for nearly a decade. It is a tidy little book, and the fun that reading it affords is a credit to the author’s compositional skills. For instance, the sentence “Hell, get him to edit it” bridges all the sentences that begin with “He”—a highly charged section—and those that begin with “Her,” a place of greater safety. There is the near-haiku that sums up the decline of Heti’s grandmother: “Grandma died. Grandma has been sick. Grandma is ailing still. Grandma said that sex is the glue.” Even out of temporal order, the sentences eulogize and mourn simply and realistically.

There are several narrative arcs despite the randomness, stitches held in place by choice details. A green skirt Heti is wearing in the A chapter, which makes her think of Lars, figures in the B chapter “[b]ecause the money isn’t here for nail polish, or lipsticks, so now that you have nail polish, now that you have lipsticks, now that you have this green skirt about which Pavel said, keep it on, then proceeded to fuck you in, stop spending money on such junk.” The green skirt appears again in the “H” chapter: “He told me that after seeing my thigh that day, when I was reading in one of the common rooms downstairs and wearing my green skirt, he couldn’t work for an hour or think about anything else—so that was pretty good.” And it is. It’s a good skirt, clearly—but it’s also canny of the author-editor to find such a thread, no matter how slender, to show the way we hold on to memory, the desire to be desired, and how we chase repetition. A table with a peg that is never replaced becomes a metaphor for Heti’s disappointment in one of her lovers. And some sections compress a lifetime of drama into a few scattered lines: “Fiona is moving to Australia with her new boyfriend” is followed by the kicker, a few lines later, “Fiona never dates men”—clearly an outdated dictate.

These moments are the result of more than mere patient editing; true to her Oulipian instincts, Heti is interested in pushing literature beyond where she can take it as an unfettered creator. In her work and in interviews, Heti has explored the role of faith in the meaning-making we try to harvest from ourselves, from our subconscious. Her literary creations draw on her ability—and ours—to supply that meaning even when it seems to be lacking. In a conversation about Motherhood hosted by the London Review of Books, she explained to Sally Rooney that her version of the I Ching worked as a voice because “there’s a way in which your brain can’t quite believe in its […] randomness.” And one gets the sense that Heti shuffled her life and kept shuffling it because, as the mechanism went on clicking, she kept finding meaning not just where there is none textually but also where there can be none existentially. As Heti told Rooney, she wants to know “to what degree is […] randomness, which is basically chaos and meaningless, connected to the least chaotic, most meaningful idea […] of absolute order”—i.e., God.

When talking to Rooney about the search for meaning, Heti was clear about how easily charlatans can convince us they’ve found it, because we all want it so badly. Women who are unhappy in love know this, and so do writers. It is a common critique of contemporary culture, and often of women, that we imbue material things with meanings they don’t deserve. A young man once asked me, when I, too, was very young, “Why do women always think a haircut is going to change their lives?” The answer is either boring (capitalism, mass media) or fabulously interesting: we want our fates to fall under our control.

Heti can see all this—that she wanted to be the author of her own story. After all, she has been studying her own diary on and off for a decade, ricing her life into discrete sentences and then scrutinizing them until she could see herself from a distance. The way she has shuffled the deck of her life invites the reader to join her in both the hungry blindness of the present and the elegant luxury of hindsight—to make meaning out of the peg in the table, the phone call from her mother, even the green skirt.

LARB Contributor

Julia Berick is a writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in Vogue, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, The Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!