Book review: Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?

SheilaHetiFirst impressions

I was so crazy about this book after reading the first seven pages that I posed a question on my Facebook page: “Is is possible to fall in love with someone just from their writing?” But, interestingly, my reactions to the book became more complicated as I continued to read, and my reflections about why this was so affected how I analyzed the book.

Initially, I loved the narrator’s honesty. Maybe it was an obvious attention-getter to put comments about her technique for giving blow jobs on the third page, but also in those first pages was a story about her friend Margaux that won me over to the writer’s voice completely. The heartwarming and funny story about Margaux finished with these words:

If I had known, when I was a baby, that in America there was a baby who was throwing up her hands and saying, first words out of her mouth, Who cares? and that one day she’d be my best friend, I would have relaxed for the next twenty-three years, not a single care in the world.

What is How Should a Person Be? about?

It’s a book that asks fundamental questions about how to find one’s path, how one can reconcile one’s “real” self with the self that is presented to the world. It talks about Art: what makes art beautiful or ugly? There are parallels between Art and a person as a work of art. Can we be lovable in spite of the inner ugliness that we’re afraid to reveal to others?

The book is about how Sheila (the character), in a mentally (and sometimes physically) torturous process, finds answers to her existential questions. Sheila’s psychotherapist tries to help Sheila with her problems, which all have to do with not carrying through. Why is Sheila blocked in her attempt to finish writing her play? Why do her most loving relationships, including a marriage, end after a brief time? The therapist gives an intellectual explanation, saying that it isn’t good to be like Peter Pan—the Puer aeternus—the eternal child.

Such people will suddenly tell you they have another plan, and they always do it the moment things start getting difficult. But it’s their everlasting switching that’s the dangerous thing, not what they choose.
They must choose work that begins and ends in a passion, a question that is gnawing at their guts, which is not to be avoided but must be realized and lived through the hard work and suffering that inevitably comes with the process.

But Sheila can only come to accept herself, and her path—to finally start growing up—because of Margaux’s friendship and love. At the beginning of the book, Sheila is very distrustful of friendships with women. She meets Margaux at a party, and the two are immediately attracted to each other. They admire each other’s artistic talent—Sheila is a writer and Margaux is a painter—but are tentative in developing their friendship.

Sheila doesn’t realize for a long time that her friendship with Margaux is unbalanced. Margaux is willing to doing something she’s afraid of—letting Sheila record their discussions about Sheila’s play—in order to help Sheila write, but Sheila is afraid to expose herself to Margaux in a similar way. In fact, when she can’t bear her writer’s block and the ugliness she knows is within herself, she reacts not by confiding in Margaux, but by running away.

When Sheila figures out that running away won’t solve her problems, and returns home, she finds a letter from Margaux. The letter explains Margaux’s deep sense of abandonment and hurt. Margaux writes “I cannot be your sometime friend.”

When Sheila goes to her friend to try to repair the damage, Margaux explains that everyone has many variables and invariables in their lives, and we construct our lives around the invariables. To Margaux, Sheila is an invariable.

Sheila realizes, “No word had ever sounded to me more like love.” She finally understands Margaux’s value—and by extension, her own.

There was only one Margaux…I had never wanted to be one person, or even believed that I was one, so I had never considered the true singularity of anyone else.

Margaux is an ideal teacher for Sheila because in addition to her words and actions as a steadfast friend, she proves herself through her art. Margaux and another painter friend of Sheila’s, Sholem, have a contest to see who can produce the ugliest painting. Sholem does his painting immediately, and is revolted by it. Margaux delays doing her painting for a long time, explaining later that she had a hard time knowing what to characterize as “ugliness”. When she finally completes her painting, it has a lot of ugly features, but Sholem says, “Your touch is all over the painting,” and he calls this “the saving grace.” Margaux can’t obliterate her strength as a painter. “Your mark is there in everything you do!” says Sholem.

Margaux makes Sheila understand that in her writing, she has to expose her true self, including all the ugliness. Paralling this philosophy, the “real” Sheila Heti includes ugliness in How Should a Person Be? An utterly horrifying dream shocks readers in the first pages of the book. Later, there are other dreams so awful you can’t help but think, “What kind of monstrous, perverted subconscious could produce this kind of dream?” Then there is “character” Sheila’s sexual obsession with a man who treats her badly. This, too, can be painful to read, but Heti is brave in revealing the polar extremes of life at its most intense, both the strength of love and the shittiness of abuse and torture.

Moreover, just as Margaux’s touch is admirable even in her most ugly painting, Heti’s writing is brilliant whether she is describing beauty or despair. For example, when she learns how she has hurt Margaux by running away without an explanation, Sheila thinks:

I had hurt Margaux beyond compare. The heat of shame was the heat of my body. There was not one cell in my body unsullied by what I had done.

Sheila’s moments of ecstasy are just as intense as her pain:

I felt so moved then—shivering at the thought of a divine love that accepts us all in our entirety. The bar around us became rich and saturated with color, as if all the molecules in the air were bursting their seams—each one insisting on its perfection too.

Heti is creative in her insights, but also in her writing formats. She’s playful and wickedly funny. Most of the book’s dialogue is in script form, mirroring Sheila’s attempt to write a play. Letters and emails are presented as numbered lists of ideas—surely not realistic, but perhaps used as a device to show us how Sheila is trying to analyze everything.

As I progressed through the book, though, my initial infatuation with it became more qualified. I started to get impatient with the narrator’s repetitive problems, her inability to write her play and answer her existential questions. I became irritated by the adolescent quality of Sheila’s incessant questioning and futile escapist adventures.

However, the book eventually reached a satisfying conclusion. It’s one of those books that requires readers to think through the confusing parts. By thinking and rereading, I could appreciate how the various relationships, stories, and themes within the novel are all interconnected. I’m curious about how other readers have reacted to the book. I know there have been rave reviews about it (and not just on the jacket blurbs), but this book wasn’t attempting to win a popularity contest: that would be counter to its whole point!

This book champions love, friendship, and Art, but it shows that all of them require persistence, faith, sacrifice, and exposing oneself completely.

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