It could be me

Joanna Biggs

  • BuyHow Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti
    Harvill Secker, 306 pp, £16.99, January 2013, ISBN 978 1 84655 754 5

Every episode of Made in Chelsea, a ‘structured reality’ TV show which follows the lives and loves of a group of real (and very posh) people, is prefaced with a warning: ‘Some scenes have been created for your entertainment.’ But which ones? I’ve seen all four seasons now (I’m not proud of myself), so I’ve got pretty good at the game. There can’t be many trust-fund kids so untouched by the triple dip as to be able to throw a party every week, so the bash that rounds off each episode must be the programme makers’ way to get all the characters in a room with drinks to throw over one another. And when the puppyish heir to a biscuit fortune knocks at the haughty brunette’s door late at night, a bottle of whisky in hand, surely it was the producers who provided the crystal tumblers? In other scenes it’s not so clear: when the fickle boyfriend calls just as the girl he wronged is discussing his bad character with her friends, she seems genuinely taken by surprise and the pouty conversation they have must be to some degree real. Or is this something they’ve rehearsed? It’s hard to believe anyone would write dialogue with that many repetitions of the word ‘like’. And isn’t what you say to a misbehaving boyfriend to some extent rehearsed anyway, even if only in your head? I watched the first episode of Made in Chelsea to see what the fuss was about, but the second to find out what happened next. And even though I’d tired of the squelchy pop music, the shots of sunlight through iron railings and the way the characters divide into blank or hammy by the 28th episode, I still found something in it. The pleasure of watching young rich people being authentically ridiculous was matched by the satisfaction of spotting the shaping hand. I was watching a reality show for the art of it.

Sheila Heti’s second novel, How Should a Person Be?, has a lot of the same anxious pleasures. The ‘novel from life’ – a marketing tag, not a manifesto – caused a stir when it was published in the US in June. James Wood reviewed it at length in the New Yorker. Heti, he said, ‘may well have identified a central dialectic of 21st-century postmodern being’, but he also complained that her ‘prose is what one might charitably call basic’. The radical feminist artist Chris Kraus compared the book to Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps for the way it ‘exuberantly appropriates’ the tired genre of the ‘male, coming-of-age saga’. Reviewers described wanting to throw the book across the room or to stock up on copies to give to friends, sometimes both. Feminist bloggers clamoured to interview and in some cases canonise her. Heti has been called the heir to Philip Roth, or to Joan Didion, and the literary equivalent of the filmmaker Lena Dunham or the songwriter Frank Ocean, who astonished the luridly heterosexual R’n’B scene last year by recording love songs addressed to his boyfriend.

But what if she’d just prefer to be one of the characters in Made in Chelsea? Heti, who turned 36 on Christmas Day, has said that one of the starting points of the novel (others were Warhol and Werner Herzog and Kierkegaard and Otto Rank and Oscar Wilde) was the first season of The Hills, an American structured reality show that began on MTV when Heti was 28: ‘I was like, what if we cast ourselves as those girls have been cast?’ The Hills followed blonde best friends trying to make it in LA; How Should a Person Be? shows a writer and a painter making it as artists in Toronto. In LA, it’s pretty clear how the blondes feel about being looked at; in Toronto, all the drama is in what it feels like to be observed living.

The book begins with a dilemma, not with description or biography or incident. The main character, Sheila, has lost her way:

How should a person be?

For years and years I asked it of everyone I met. I was always watching to see what they were going to do in any situation, so I could do it too. I was always listening to their answers, so if I liked them, I could make them my answers too.

Instead of copying being the way we learn, as a baby learns to speak, it has become a dead end. Should Sheila be responsible like her friend Misha or irresponsible like her friend Margaux? Both qualities seem to suit her friends so well. She starts again: ‘How should a person be? I sometimes wonder about it, and I can’t help answering like this: a celebrity.’ When she imagines herself as a celebrity, though, she isn’t thinking of Paris Hilton or Hillary Clinton, but of a sort of visible invisibility:

Everyone would know in their hearts that I am the most famous person alive – but not talk about it too much … No one has to know what I think, for I don’t really think anything at all, and no one has to know the details of my life, for there are no good details to know. It is the quality of fame one is after here, without any of its qualities.

Sheila wants to reconcile irreconcilables. She wants to be all her friends and none of them; she wants to be famous and not famous; she wants her quest to be epic like Moses’ and to take place in a ‘cocoon’; she knows she lives in an ‘age of some really great blow-job artists’ but wants to live among female geniuses: ‘One good thing about being a woman is we haven’t many examples yet of what a genius looks like. It could be me.’ One thing Sheila does know is that she’s had enough: of her contemporaries (‘These are my fucking contemporaries!’), of men (‘Smiling only encourages men to bore you and waste your time’), of herself (‘I would rather be liked for who I appear to be, and for who I appear to be to be who I am’). The best thing in her life is her friend Margaux.

Most novels which include a character with the name of the author do it as a metafictional game or joke, but when Sheila Heti calls her main character Sheila it is out of exasperation with the novel. How Should a Person Be? is the culmination of Heti’s attempts to write a novel about life when a novel is written in a room, away from life. Her first two books were about bringing life into unsurprising, rather moribund literary forms: The Middle Stories (2001) gave a fairy princess ‘a regional man who was just a plumber’ as a suitor; Ticknor (2005) borrowed episodes from the diaries of Sofia Tolstoy, Florence Nightingale and Marie Stopes for a historical novel in the form of a dramatic monologue spoken by the (real-life) biographer George Ticknor about his (real-life) subject, the historian William Prescott. But recent projects have been more collaborative: in 2009, Heti appeared as ‘Leonore’ in Leanne Shapton’s love story disguised as an auction catalogue, Important Artefacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Leonore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewellery, and in 2011 she worked with the illustrator Clare Rojas on a children’s book called We Need a Horse. That year, Heti also began a novel, The Moral Development of Misha, about her friend Misha Glouberman, but got stuck on ‘how to develop him morally’:

I never found the project as interesting as talking to my friend. I have always liked the way Misha speaks and thinks, but writing down the sorts of things he might say and think was never as pleasurable as encountering the things he actually did say and think. If I wanted to capture Misha, in all his specificity, why was I creating a fictional Misha? If I wanted to engage with Misha, why not leave my room and walk down the street?

And so instead of a novel, Heti and Glouberman collaborated on The Chairs Are Where the People Go, a book of ‘conversational philosophy’ (a self-help book for hipsters, really) that was made by Misha talking and Sheila typing, then shaping and assembling his thoughts into 72 mini-essays with titles like ‘Why a Computer Only Lasts Three Years’ and ‘Miscommunication Is Nice’. Heti comments: ‘We had a really nice time.’ (I hear the Toronto art scene is well subsidised.) To charges that it is vain to write books based on yourself and your friends, she has answered that the novel ‘was a way to try and write about life, but not write about my life’ – and part of the fun of novels has always been the game of hide and seek played between author and reader. The Chairs Are Where the People Go and How Should a Person Be? are to some degree part of the same game, or project: collaborative, spoken, questing things, with a ghost of a novel in them. Both are dedicated to Margaux Williamson, the real-life painter, filmmaker and girlfriend of Misha Glouberman, who is the model for the Margaux of How Should a Person Be?

Margaux is introduced as the sort of person who as a baby, when a glass of milk spilled and her mother and sister were panicking, threw up her hands and said her first words: ‘Who cares?’ She is one of the people ‘who do not feel like they were raised by wolves, and they are the ones who make the world tick.’ Sheila was married when she met Margaux. She remembers her wedding mostly for her voice cracking and her eyes welling with emotion during the vows even though she didn’t feel moved: ‘That bride inhabited me at the exact moment I should have been most present. It was like I was not there at all – it was not me.’ Life is a performance that you can succeed at even while you’re losing. First catching sight of Margaux at a party talking to her husband, Sheila is taken with her: ‘She looked at the same time like a little girl, a sexy woman, and a man.’ Margaux climbs out onto the balcony to bum a cigarette from Sheila: ‘But I didn’t say a word. Instead, we smoked together quietly, and as she exhaled, the trees touched each other’s branches in the wind.’ When Sheila’s marriage ends, and with it the sense of ‘innocence, like floating in syrup’, that had accompanied her life so far, she feels unprotected, as if she can’t trust herself with her own decisions. She certainly can’t finish the play a Toronto feminist theatre company has commissioned her to write. Her crush on Margaux turns into an almost vampiric desire to emulate her: ‘I envied the freedom I suspected in her, and wanted to know it better, and become that way too.’ At the end of Act One of the five acts the novel is divided into, Sheila is divorced and blocked, living in a ‘crummy basement apartment’ and working as a shampoo girl in a hairdresser, on the Holly Golightlyesque premise that ‘nothing bad could happen in a hair salon.’

Sheila spots a dictaphone in a shop window and persuades Margaux – who grows plants on her balcony, and was ‘really good at getting them strong’ – to let her record their conversations as a way of finding out what’s wrong with her play. They walk into their shared studio discussing Otto Rank’s assertion that there will one day be no art, only artists:

MARGAUX

We-ll …

They walk across an old rug into their dirty white-walled studio.

I do think it’s responsible not to put out a crappy play – in an old-fashioned, like, a strict old-fashioned sense. You shouldn’t put out bad work. But if it’s not about the work, then it doesn’t matter how crappy it is. What matters is the people you’re doing it with, and the experience you have doing it. Actually, I think it would be way more in service of your life to put out this mediocre play, so you could –

SHEILA

(with angst) More in service of my life! But my life suffers if I make bad – if I put out a bad play!

MARGAUX

That’s right. So … Otto would say, Who cares?

Margaux starts setting things up on her drafting board.

SHEILA

No, no! Otto would say I’m doing the right thing!

It’s not that Sheila can’t write even though she wants to, it’s more that she can’t work out whether writing her play – the first draft of which she says is ‘not great’ as well as belonging to the married Sheila who ‘had been living in some other world entirely’– undermines her life. What if she could make art just by living, as Otto Rank says? These transcribed conversations are the parts of the novel that are most likely to be ‘true’ (Heti could produce the recordings to prove it) yet they are the parts that seem the most fictional, and where the book touches most closely on its themes. The idea that Sheila and Margaux might have had conversations like this about their work has troubled some critics: isn’t it all a bit self-indulgent? But if imaginary characters had such conversations, it wouldn’t be worrying in the same way, and Sheila and Margaux are real and not real. When Adam Robinson of BOMB magazine asked Heti if she was interchangeable with the Sheila of How Should a Person Be? she replied: ‘That is like seeing a ventriloquist with a dummy on their hand with a hideous plastic face that’s modelled after their face and [asking] the ventriloquist: “In what way are you different from the dummy on your hand?”’ As more and more conversations throughout the book are laid out as dialogue, and Margaux’s emails appear (numbered like verses in the Bible, which Heti has called ‘the ultimate book that intersects with life’) between the short sections in Sheila’s voice, the distinction between real and not real blurs and you start to see that this ‘novel from life’ is also an artfully constructed play in five acts, perhaps the play for the feminist theatre company that Sheila can’t work out a way to write.

The recorded conversations seem to work for Sheila, who is transcribing them and printing them out onto wodges of A4 paper, telling her therapist that ‘life feels like it’s with Margaux – talking.’ Margaux’s gallery is showing some of her pictures at Miami Art Basel and Sheila suggests that they go there to deliver the latest paintings in person. They wander around, look at bad art, go to parties, talk to rich art collectors, buy the same yellow dress and ask Keanu Reeves to fetch them a towel while they’re swimming in their underwear in the hotel pool. But when they get back to Toronto, Sheila gets an email from Margaux. Here are verses eight and nine:

8. I really do need some of my own identity, and this is pretty simple and good for the head.

9. I’m going to get rid of the dress now, cause it makes me a little sad to look at it.

Sheila’s girl crush has gone bad, and in mixing art and life she may have lost the friendship that was helping her disentangle the knots she had got into with her play. The scenario – two women in the same yellow dress – is silly like something to fill five minutes of an episode of Made in Chelsea, yet iconic like a turn of the plot in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Heti’s is a sort of female quest that can take in art and life but also yellow dresses, shampooing strangers and speaking in the airhead tone James Wood finds so irritating, with terms like ‘phony-baloney’, moments of excitement like ‘Right! Right!’ and pick-up lines (to the man’s girlfriend) like ‘Your boyfriend is the sexiest guy in the city.’ Heti is going for ideas rather than fine prose, for invention rather than craft (she has said she particularly likes it that the novel’s prose is ‘not elevated’).

These are small feminist gestures in a novel that has a big, almost invisible one at its centre: Sheila and Margaux’s relationship is the story. When Sheila goes home with Israel, the man whose girlfriend she complimented, their subplot is literally put outside the novel, in an ‘Interlude for Fucking’ at the end of Act Two, the point at which in the theatre there’s ice cream. Much has been made of the fact that How Should a Person Be? passes the Bechdel Test (two named female characters must talk to each other about something other than a man, invented by the graphic novelist Alison Bechdel), but its woman-centredness also hints at feminism’s dirty secret: that feminists might be feminists because they are supremely interested in themselves, even if that interest is in the shape of self-doubt. While Sheila says that it’s great to be a woman because what a female genius should be hasn’t yet been established, that is also the problem of being a woman. Later in the novel she says it was no accident that a generation of Israelites died on the way to the promised land, because ‘a generation born into slavery is not yet ready for the responsibilities of freedom.’

Sheila and Margaux can’t be parted with a cheap device like buying the same outfit. Margaux admonishes Sheila – ‘Boundaries, Sheila. Barriers’ – and they begin a period of working by day and drinking by night, except that Sheila cleans her apartment instead of writing, washing ‘all the walls by hand’. Margaux leaves a message for Sheila on her dictaphone about how MacArthur Fellowships support the idea of just doing ‘good work’. ‘I always had a fantasy of meeting a girl … who was as serious as I was,’ Margaux adds. ‘I wasn’t sure if this … was Margaux’s way of telling me to get to work on my play – or that she missed me in the studio, or even that there was money for geniuses – but somehow it all felt possible.’ (The real-life Margaux read forty drafts of Heti’s novel.) Sheila immediately transcribes the message and then writes up what happened in Miami, in a four-hour burst of ‘true freedom’. She has discovered that she can write if she writes closer to her life. But the feeling of freedom is soured when Sheila sees Margaux’s latest painting. Margaux has painted herself with ‘a smug, sly smile wiped across her face’, an artist corrupted by art for art’s sake, and Sheila sees her friend’s loss of faith in what art can do as being a result of her transcriptions, the two yellow dresses, her quest to find out how a person should be: ‘I had plagiarised her being and mixed it up with the ugliness that was mine!’ Sheila decides to leave Toronto for New York. She is worse than she originally thought, and lower than when she started, apart from not being blocked any more.

In New York she hangs out with a friend called Jen, goes to parties and readings, comes across a copy shop and talks to the owner about Jewishness and Margaret Mead, drinks Campari and soda and dodges a one-night stand with a married man. As Sheila sinks into self-pity and boredom, so does her novel. (This must have been the point at which some critics threw the book across the room, if they hadn’t already.) The argument must be that boredom is part of life, or as Sheila puts it, ‘People should be a little bored.’ The novel began with Sheila setting a challenge for Margaux and Sholem, another painter friend: who can produce the ugliest painting? Heti is testing how ugly a novel should be. Can a novel be written in unelevated prose with a California-girl twang to it? Can a novel be made from real conversations and emails? Can a novel be boring but unputdownable? Heti’s book is not so ugly as not to be recognisable as fiction. How Should a Person Be? is a Bildungsroman about two women trying to become artists (‘We do whatever we can to make the other one feel famous’) and as such the reader has questions she wants answered, questions compelling enough to get her through the boring bits: will Sheila and Margaux be friends again? Will Sheila finish her play? Who will win the ugly painting competition?

The British edition is the third version of the novel. The first, which came out in Canada from Anansi in 2010, was uglier: longer, more free-form, a book in which Sheila and Margaux drink champagne out of plain ‘coffee cups’ instead of ‘the very best cups’. When challenged by Anna Altman on the Paris Review blog over ‘prettifying’ a text that’s ugly on purpose, Heti replied that the novel is ‘about questioning, it’s about not really knowing the answers and it’s probably right for this book to never be done’. How Should a Person Be? is a question to be revisited by the author herself, or another writer, or many other writers – but it’s also the question novels were invented to respond to.

When Heti was beginning How Should a Person Be? she read a lot of self-help books, specifically one of the first: Self-Help by Samuel Smiles, published in 1859. The pragmatic Englishman gave details of great men’s lives – Walter Scott worked before breakfast, George Stephenson worked on his locomotive for 15 years before a breakthrough – as it was thought that copying them was a path to virtue. This is the basic argument in favour of novels: we follow Lizzy Bennet from prejudiced to happily married and we learn something. (The same argument can be used against them: which noble qualities are future mothers supposed to glean from the example of Mrs Bennet?) Sheila makes it ugly to clear a space: for novels to be less fictional, for women to dream of being geniuses, for a way of being ‘honest and transparent and give away nothing’.