SHEILA HETI IS an incomparable writer who manages in all her works to elude the usual constraints of any particular time or place. Stripping her concerns of limiting context enables Heti to pursue only questions directly related to life and death. Her first book, The Middle Stories (2001), is a stunning collection of eternal, otherworldly fairy tales. Her first novel, Ticknor (2005), and her breakout success, How Should a Person Be? (2012), treat a range of relationships between characters while engaging methodically but unassumingly with questions of ethics and the heart. In its mix of fiction and real-world interactions from the author’s life, How Should a Person Be? feels less like a novel than it does Heti’s own thrilling new form. Her latest, Motherhood, takes this originality of style and construction several steps further while digging deeper into the meanings of our lives as human beings. It ultimately offers readers ingenious ways to reconceive themselves and invites female readers in particular to reexamine their notions of themselves as women.
“Whether I want kids is a secret I keep from myself,” Heti’s narrator, who is depicted throughout the book as being indistinguishable from the author, tells the reader at Motherhood’s start. It is a secret that is all-consuming:
The question of a child is a bug in the brain — it’s a bug that crawls across everything, every memory, and every sense of my own future. How to dislodge that bug? It’s eating holes in everything there ever was or will be. Nothing remains intact.
In a sense, this not-exactly-a-novel (it’s part philosophy, part spiritual handbook, part diary, part memoir) is a classic quest: the narrator sets off into the wilderness of her own mind to find the answer to this question and, in so doing, get rid of the pest. The reader knows from the outset that until the narrator finds what she needs she will not be whole as a woman or as a person, and she will suffer this incompleteness intensely.
The book opens with an elegant and exciting sequence that introduces the reader to the strategy, adapted from the I Ching, that the narrator plans to adopt as one component of her investigative method. She will flip three coins to answer yes-no questions because, as she later notes, “I don’t think I have a heart — a heart I can consult.” The narrator goes back and forth on the issue of having a child, consults friends, and reflects on her partner, Miles, while occasionally including a relevant black-and-white snapshot or reproduction of a painting. The twists and turns Heti’s mind takes are utterly unpredictable, and it is in its unruliness that Motherhood finds its way of being alive.
There is this main narrative, and there is what exceeds it. Death — cancer, genocide, climate change, and the havoc wreaked upon the planet — and a grim physicality permeate every page. The narrator’s mother, withdrawn during the narrator’s childhood, haunts this investigation with the looming specters of disappointment and despair. Heti writes,
When my mother first saw a dead body, she was in medical school in Hungary. It was lying open on a table before her, and glancing inside it, she felt a kind of vertigo. […] Even though she had been raised without God, she was troubled to find nothing else there — no soul.
The narrator fears the same deadening un-revelation if she gives birth to a child. What if the supposedly magical process of bringing a new life into the world turns out to be mere blood and guts, wasted time and energy, just repetition of the dull caretaking tasks that seemed to make her own mother so sad?
This dilemma only grows more dire. She discusses the prospect of motherhood with an Israeli writer friend who, unlike the narrator herself, knows for sure she wants to have a family. In contemplating this, Heti writes,
Among Jewish women, I know that Israeli women, in particular, are expected to repopulate from the losses of the Holocaust. If you don’t have children, our enemies will have won. I have felt this, too.
Yet she also feels the demands made by this history are more complex:
Rather than repopulating the world, might it not be better to say, We have learned from our recent history about the farthest reaches of cruelty, sadism and evil. And so, in protest, we will make no more humans — no more humans for a hundred years! — in retaliation for the crimes that have been committed against us. We will make no more aggressors, and no more victims, and in this way, do a good thing with our wombs.
There is this philosophical stance of not — not exacerbating, not enabling, not attempting in vain to make up for — and there is the more visceral reaction that the narrator has to her own family’s Holocaust story: when her mother’s mother Magda was inexplicably the only girl spared rape and murder at the hands of German soldiers one afternoon, the narrator’s (and Sheila Heti’s) existence was made possible by the rejection:
To have grown up knowing this story, I think gave me a strange feeling of the naturalness of family lines ending, as if our family line was supposed to end there, but it managed to slip by, but just barely — the way someone who has been shot might stumble forward a few more steps before collapsing dead. This is how my life has always felt to me: like those last few bloodied and hobbled steps after the bullet has pierced the body.
It is a stunning summation, and this idea of hobbling returns throughout the book as the central metaphor for the female condition, which Heti suggests is a mixture of self-imposed (through misdirection and excessive politeness, which she determines to eradicate in herself) and forced upon women by men. (The fluctuations and dictates of women’s bodies, on the other hand, mostly produce interesting creative tensions, which only hobble when misunderstood or mishandled.)
Ultimately, because her writing is unmoored from a specific time or place, Heti must remain at home in herself. As she sees it, this requires some selfishness, as well as time spent alone — in other words, not being hobbled by the needs and expectations of another. “Having a child solves the impulse to give oneself nothing. It makes that impulse into a virtue,” she writes. Yet, as the three coins confirm, “Happiness and joy are feeling like you belong to the world, and is at home in the world, at the level of nature, humanity and time.”
Having children is a kind of miracle, and not having them is its own kind of miracle. “Our lives are meaningless,” the narrator decides, “but Life is not — Life is hilarious and wonderful and brimming with joy. Life is pure freedom and it contains everything — even this dismal, grey human world.”
Intermittently wise, boring, spellbinding, irritating, delightful, depressing, and inspiring, Motherhood is a celebration of the miraculous bond between reader and writer and the new realms of possibility — from sparkling to dismal — this alliance never fails to open up.
Novelist and translator Jennifer Croft is a 2018–’19 Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, n+1, Guernica, Electric Literature, the New Republic, the Guardian, and elsewhere.