Sheila Heti, “How Should A Person Be?” (2010) (narrated by Allyson Ryan) – This was bad. I get that I’m not the target audience here. I’m a man, for one, and I don’t give a shit about painting or theater, the two arts to which most of the characters are notionally dedicated. How did I come by this book? As best I can piece it together: I had decided to, every third audiobook I listen to, listen to a contemporary big-name literary figure. I got it in my head that Heti was one such based on her being published — excerpts from this book, if I remember right — in n+1. I think seeing her relatively new book about being a mom reminded me of that, and so, there I am. Truth be told, extending “contemporary” to 2010 might be stretching it a bit, but whatever, who do I need to justify these categorization schemes to?
Anyway. This book is about Sheila Heti (the author, or a ~fictional character??~ are you impressed yet??), her inability to write a play, and her friendship with a woman named Margaux (apparently a real painter, but I don’t care). Sheila ponders life, including the titular (stupid) question, and has little vignettes with Margaux, their various artistic friends in Toronto, etc. The closest thing there is to a plot is the rise and fall and resurrection of the Sheila-Margaux friendship.
The characters, including the author’s depiction of herself, are so thinly-drawn that I started to entertain dark, vaguely conspiratorial thoughts (perhaps because nothing else, like the audiobook I was listening to, was entertaining me at the time). Is Sheila Heti a closet reactionary, like an anti-feminist or something, looking to get across an idea of women of her generation (she’s about ten years older than me, a Gen Xer) as vapid, pretentious idiots? That would explain her characterization of herself and Margaux. They get in a nearly friendship-ending fight because they buy the same dress at a boutique! What the fuck is that? Sheila also portrays herself as helplessly dependent on men’s sexual attentions. She has a big fling with a shitty artist named Israel, leading to an extended sequence with her using the phrase “getting fucked by Israel” a lot, which just makes me think of the Gaza situation which only reaffirmed that no, I’m not the reader she presumably had in mind. Target audience or no, I found the “Heti as anti-feminist mole” reading more interesting and in a way, happier, than the “Heti as genuinely this bad of a writer” explanation.
I’ve been thinking about recent intellectual history and the ideas of Gen X lately, and the idea that people are idiots who don’t really deserve rights or a future does seem to be pretty prevalent in that cohort. Of course, very few can really hang with that kind of nihilism- bad for the old career track. The path back to doing all the normal bourgeois shit anyway — work, mate, spawn — is illuminated by self-consciousness: if you’re merely conscious of how fake and shitty everything is, and comment on it ironically, then you’re a superior person who can go forward with things, like how Weber’s Calvinists believed that their ability to make money was a sign their God was ok with them. Even that was too much of a bummer for many, so eventually you got various rainbow-colored versions of the same idea, where I guess we get a future after all despite not deserving it, because dammit, people can LOVE, or something. Heti belongs in that latter category. I wonder if she gets mad when people suggest ways to make things better than can’t be subsumed into a lifestyle change, the way a lot of Gen X intellectuals do? I guess there’s limits to how much I can blame them. No one’s dignified when they’re horny, and no one’s dignified when they’re trying to find their way out of the basic existential quandaries. But all because we all have belly buttons doesn’t mean I have to be interested in the contents of yours.
I can’t really shred the book too much, not because it doesn’t deserve it but because I listened to it and so couldn’t take notes. Truth be told, there’s not much point. Writers like this and their respective readerships (thinking David Foster Wallace here too) just kind of absorb most critiques and are like “well, of course my work was a pointless waste of time, because that’s LIFE, but at the same time it’s BEAUTIFUL and everyone plays SQUASH without keeping SCORE like in the end of this stupid BOOK” etc. etc. Margaux says she’s uncomfortable with the concepts of beauty and ugliness, and you know, I don’t see myself as the authority on those things either, but whatever beauty might be, I’m certain this book lacks it. I’ll give it the extra half star on the idea I’m maybe missing something as a big dumb man, but something tells me I can afford to miss whatever it is on offer here. *’