Sheila Heti writes novels about the burden of freedom. Her characters navigate their lives as if the world were new and traditions obsolete; they can’t trust history, but they don’t trust intuition either. In How Should a Person Be? (2010), the main character, also called Sheila, tries to answer the question posed by the title through minute observation of her closest friends. In The Chairs Are Where the People Go (2011), a nonfiction book co-written with Misha Glouberman, Heti documents Glouberman’s beliefs and aphorisms as a series of life lessons. ‘I thought the world should have a book about everything he knows,’ she writes in her foreword. (Chapter headings include ‘People’s Protective Bubbles Are Okay’ and ‘Don’t Pretend There Is No Leader’.) In her novel Motherhood (2018), the narrator weighs up the pros and cons of having children with recourse to the I Ching and interviews with friends who are mothers.
The ceaseless metaphysical self-inquiry of Heti’s books is a maddening, but accurate, depiction of a world in which one cannot boil an egg or clean a toilet or get married without wondering whether there might be a more optimal way of doing it explained in a video on the internet. Heti writes for a generation that seeks guidance from fortune-tellers, self-help books, behavioural science, evolutionary biology, make-up tutorials and lists of the food famous people consume in a given day. Despite their freedom, her characters bear little resemblance to the 20th-century existentialists who seem to be their intellectual predecessors. They are not the daughters of Simone de Beauvoir, shaping their lives through determined acts of will. Instead, they grapple with an unstable sense of self, their certainty easily swayed by whoever is nearby. They want to escape the dysfunction and hierarchy of the patriarchal family but fear that rejecting inherited norms will leave them with no family at all. They wonder if art can give purpose to solitude, if it’s more dependable than fickle human ties.
Pure Colour is unusual among Heti’s books in taking on two life experiences in which agency is useless: unrequited love and the death of a parent. The challenge for the main character, Mira, is not deciding what to do but accepting that nothing can be done. Pure Colour, like Motherhood before it, is also a book about getting older. What had seemed a lark, a great project of hanging out with friends and trying new things, loses its significance in time. Mira is coming to terms with how small life ends up being.
The novel begins with the outline of a cosmology, its own Book of Genesis. God has created the heavens and the Earth, and then stepped back to contemplate his creation. ‘This is the moment we are living in – the moment of God standing back,’ Heti writes. She calls this ‘the first draft of existence’ and suspects it might be nearing its end. A looming apocalypse, then, which situates us in the present, the era in which ‘the world was failing at its one task – of remaining a world.’ The seasons had become ‘postmodern’, she writes in a passage on climate change – something that has become an almost perfunctory gesture in the contemporary novel: ‘The ice cubes were melting. The species were dying. The last of the fossil fuels were being burned up. A person collapsing in the street might be collapsing from any one of a hundred things. New things to die of were being added each day.’
As God prepares to edit the first draft of existence, he splits himself into an alternative holy trinity of ‘three critics in the sky: a large bird who critiques from above, a large fish who critiques from the middle, and a large bear who critiques while cradling creation in his arms’. Each human, in turn, tends towards one of these archetypes. A fish concerns herself with the condition of the many instead of the condition of the individual. A bear ‘is like a child holding on to their very best doll’ – they keep a few people close. A bird considers the world an abstraction and is ‘interested in beauty, order, harmony and meaning’. It’s the kind of taxonomy one might find in an internet dating profile alongside attachment styles, love languages, Enneagram numbers and astrological signs. Mira is a bird, ‘torn between her love for the mysterious Annie, who seems to Mira a distant fish, and her love for her father, who appears as a warm bear’.
A couple of pages later we are back in the familiar setting of a Heti novel: a Toronto-like city where young people hang out with their friends and balance their artistic ambitions with ordinary jobs. Mira has moved out of her childhood home and works at a shop that sells Tiffany lamps. She begins a course of study at an international satellite of the elite ‘American Academy of American Critics’ (I laughed). ‘In the large room, students stood on desks, declaiming,’ Heti writes. ‘They knew they had to develop a style of writing and thinking that could survive down the ages, and at the same time penetrate their own generation so incisively.’ The joke’s on them – smartphones are about to arrive, and with them a new medium through which ‘people who had far more charisma than they did would let flow an endless stream of images and words.’ Another side effect of ageing is nostalgia. Heti is looking back on Mira’s young adulthood, when social circles were smaller and ‘it was enough to know just four or five people and to have slept with two or three of them,’ when she didn’t have hundreds of online ‘friends’ further muddling the question of how a person should be.
It is in this small world of students gathering to eat vegan peanut stew that Mira meets Annie. Of Annie, we learn only that she grew up in an orphanage in a faraway American city (the pleasure of Heti’s jokes is that they are scattered at random) and that she seems to be an older writer granted microcelebrity status by the students of the American Academy of American Critics. The lack of human detail makes Annie more of a concept than a person, but the blank quality of Heti’s prose is compelling in the same way that a prairie or a snowbank is compelling. Its lack of sharp edges comes with a sense of reassurance, that a child would be safe here, and that she is never going to say anything that will hurt you. Having been raised with the suffocating love of her bear dad, Mira is drawn to the outward-facing energy of Annie, a fish (I can’t say whether Heti’s use of categories that have their own associations on Grindr and RuPaul’s Drag Race is intentional or not, but the gay-slang connotations of ‘bear’ and the out-of-style ‘fishy’ don’t seem to apply here).
Mira falls in love with Annie, a love out of proportion. ‘With a few people in one’s life, too much happens emotionally – more than even makes sense to happen, given how little has actually occurred.’ Their relationship doesn’t progress. Mira is starting to realise that the world is going to disappoint her: the love, work and money she had expected will not arrive. She suffers from what Lauren Berlant called ‘cruel optimism’ – a condition where ‘something you desire is actually an obstacle to your own flourishing.’ ‘Nothing would be as we hoped it would be,’ Heti writes, ‘here in the first draft of existence.’ The sun still rises, but very little else can be counted on.
In Motherhood, Heti wrote of the sense of abandonment her narrator felt when her friends had children. The desertion of their shared social project leaves her surprised. Books, on the other hand, never let someone down. ‘The lonely fill up their lives with books. I don’t live in nature. I don’t live in culture. I don’t live in my relationships. I live in books.’ In Pure Colour, which questions the idea of the ‘chosen family’ as an adequate replacement for the biological one, the disillusionment with friendship seems even more pronounced. As Mira gets older, the group of friends who ate peanut stew together grows apart, and she questions the worth of what they shared. ‘All that time, all that stupid time, I should have been with my father.’
She thinks this after her father has died. He is as abstract an entity as Annie. Like a Disney heroine, Mira doesn’t seem to have a mother or siblings. She was everything to her father, ‘her lonely father, who had no woman besides Mira’. In life, Mira tried to put distance between them. After his death, she allows herself the depth of intimacy she couldn’t handle when he was alive, including sexual ideation. In order to converse with her father directly, Heti tells us, Mira uploads herself to a leaf on a tree and enters the cosmic plane of the afterlife. I don’t think we need to understand exactly what this means, except that while she remains in the leaf Mira is liberated from ordinary constraints of space and time, and can speak to her father directly. (Perhaps it is worth noting that ‘leaf’ rhymes with ‘grief’.)
In the leaf, Mira and her dead father discuss God and consciousness. Their theological arguments about faith versus reason are not given a particular religious context, and their ahistoricism has a naive quality, like the revelations of a person on acid. Mira and her father contemplate the second draft of the world, when it will be given over to plants, or birds, or whatever replaces humans. ‘We are the tragic ones who think it’s a tragedy that the human animal will be gone,’ Mira says, echoing Dr Malcolm in Jurassic Park. ‘But that doesn’t mean it’s a tragedy on a worldwide scale.’ The second draft of creation will not be mired in our petty concerns: ‘You are sad because art, which is love, will be gone, but you only need art because you are stuck in the first draft,’ Mira’s father tells her. ‘You are sad because your father had to die, but in the next draft you won’t be sad, because there won’t be fathers.’ Sometimes Annie comes to sit under the tree with her new girlfriend. Mira watches from the leaf, heartbroken and envious: ‘Mira was going to be the one who didn’t get what she wanted, while this woman would.’
As the novel progressed, I began to wonder whether the pandemic has made us revanchist. ‘What you want are fixers, but what is needed is to follow the traditions with faith,’ Mira’s father tells her, as they converse in the leaf. ‘Part of human life is following the traditions of family. That’s part of the real plot of it. If you follow the traditions, you don’t need fixers, who will kill you eventually.’ Fixers aren’t quite defined – they are ‘coming from the world of psychology, from those who know nothing about the traditions and don’t care, and would smash them if they could, and would institute a whole series of reforms’. Heti doesn’t mention Covid-19 explicitly, but the pandemic had a way of throwing us back into dependence on our nearest relations. Whatever passed for social life in 2019 turned out to be a mirage, just a lot of noise, and its sudden disappearance left me with the same feeling that Mira seems to be describing in Pure Colour: a sense of disappointment in the primacy of biological ties – that the people who love you the most are the ones who sort of have to, that love given freely is often unreliable – and fear about what happens to a childless person when their parents die. Mira thinks about the entities that will witness the second draft of creation. ‘How strange and sad our world will seem to them then – if they even find out about it – that we once had to create people with our own bodies, in order for there to be, among the billions of people already living, someone who could love us, and someone we could love in turn.’ This isn’t a repudiation of anything in Motherhood, which concludes with the narrator accepting that she won’t have children, or even a compelling argument for having children. It’s just an expression of disappointment.
But then Mira remembers that Annie is an orphan, and that being an orphan has freed her to believe in the possibility of communal life that Mira has lost faith in. It is Annie who helps Mira find her way out of the leaf in a jewel of a scene where the two meet to drink tea and eat chocolate. ‘Even if they weren’t as close as two people possibly could be, still they were sitting at the very same table, and that was pretty good. It didn’t have to be as close as possible for it to be something good.’ But when Mira opens her heart to Annie, going so far as to show up at her house dressed in a bedraggled leaf costume as proof of her love, Annie has nothing much to give her in return, just the usual coldness. Now she’s older, Mira doesn’t take it so personally. There is comfort, it turns out, in resignation, in not trying to make a second draft of one’s life, of believing in a god who has a plan instead of prevaricating over every choice. Life didn’t turn out quite the way Mira wanted, but she resigns herself to the fact that just as the world doesn’t progress to something better, life doesn’t necessarily either. It is just itself:
It was a delusion to think she had created the world and everything in it; that she had made up its rules and was always to blame. Where had that idea come from? Or did everyone feel that way, a little bit, for it was actually God who was feeling it – the God who had in fact created the world, while we picked up on his shame for having made it, in some ways, poorly, and mistook his feeling of responsibility for our own.