Big questions on the nature of being, truth, beauty, and meaning tend to invite responses that are simultaneously banal and profound. These answers multiply and proliferate, are argued over and defended within a particular ideology. Sometimes, art emerges out of this chaos and uncertainty. Sometimes, philosophy offers a different way of approaching and thinking about these questions. Sometimes, the market sells us a tepid philosophical novel by a fairly established writer hailed as the current/next big thing.
Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? is interested in the small gestures that make up human attempts to answer the big questions of life. How should a person be in order to create art, in order to create meaningful relationships with other people? It’s a book that seems well aware that the small gestures in pursuit of answers to the big questions of life are often mind-numbingly tedious. Life is one long bout of monotony, and then we die. How Should a Person Be? is accordingly committed to tedium, something that Heti explained in a New York Times interview: “I think stimulation is overrated, and persistent stimulation is exhausting. You sometimes have to be banal, tedious; make the rhythm go soft and slow, give the mind a rest. I’d rather that people could be both entertained and given rest while reading my book, than for someone to have to put the book down to take a rest.”
Heti’s book is a fictionalised memoir (or “a novel taken from life”, as the cover suggests) featuring Heti, a published author and interviews editor of The Believer, and her band of friends who are artists, writers, playwrights, cultural critics, and musicians. In How Should a Person Be?, Sheila is struggling to finish a play she’s been commissioned to write for a feminist theatre company. The book is built around a five-act dramatic structure—the novel, in the end, becomes the play that Sheila could not write. Sheila’s narration of the events of her life is incorporated within pages of emails and transcribed dialogue, and much of the writing in How Should a Person Be? is cool, ironic, and casual—the mundane language of everyday urban living.
In trying to come to terms with a recently ended marriage and her inability to write, and wrestling with deeper questions about the making of art as process and actual work, Sheila meets Margaux Williamson, a gifted painter, and Israel, a mediocre painter and gifted fucker (in the literal sense). That her friendship with Margaux plays into Sheila’s concerns, fears, and thoughts about writing a play about women for a feminist theatre company is a significant theme: As Sheila admits, “I didn’t know anything about women!” Her foray into a friendship with Margaux is hesitant and tentative; she is both drawn to Margaux and confused about the nature of female friendships: “What was a woman for? Two women was an alchemy I did not understand.”
Men came easier to Sheila: “Ever since I was a teenager,” she tells us, “I had been drawn to men exclusively, and they drew themselves to me—as lovers, as friends. They pursued me. It was simple. It was men I enjoyed talking to at parties, and whose opinions I was interested in hearing. It was men I wanted to grow close to and be influenced by. It was easy.” Interestingly, in that same vein, it is Margaux’s initial pursuit of Sheila that triggers their initial connection.
Sheila’s attempt at writing the play/novel is also an attempt at being ugly. In the first chapter, Sheila tells her friends that she looked around her life and “realized that all the ugly people had been weeded out.” Her friends respond with various thoughts on ugliness: “Sholem said he couldn’t enjoy a friendship with someone he wasn’t attracted to. Margaux said it was impossible for her to picture an ugly person, and Misha remarked that ugly people tend to stay at home.” Margaux’s answer is the most interesting (indeed, Margaux is the most compelling person in the whole book). While Margaux doesn’t understand beauty (Sheila explains that Margaux is embarrassed “when people called her work beautiful, a word she claimed not to understand”), Sheila admits that she is preoccupied with it: “I had spent so much time trying to make the play I was writing—and my life, and my self—into an object of beauty. It was exhausting and all that I knew.”
Accordingly, Sheila sets out to find the ugly in herself and in her life. Heti spells it out in a brief interview in the August issue of Nylon magazine, where she explains that this book is about “how to be ugly in the world—and that’s maybe it’s OK to be ugly, maybe you need to be. For me, ugliness is a lack of control, so the book had to have that feeling of looseness or freedom or ugliness or lack of inhibition.” The problem is that How Should a Person Be? is not loose or uninhibited or ugly; in fact, it strives for meaning, form, and coherence.
Despite itself, it cultivates beauty and order, and aims for a sense of purpose that is implicit in the title. Sure, there are moments when we see the ugly side of Sheila, if ugly means the time she tried to take a shit in her toilet during a party and couldn’t because the guests might realise that she’d just taken a big dump; or if ugly means how much she liked sucking on Israel’s cock, how she is both humiliated and on fire by “getting nightly reamed by Israel”; or if ugly means having bizarre dreams about a recycling centre “that only poor people used”. Sure, if “how to be ugly in the world” is to offer tidy presentations of ugliness that are tightly-controlled and expertly managed to elicit laughs and sympathy.
Heti’s bigger concerns, however, are framed within the narratives of self-help and religion. Stories about Sheila’s futile attempts at life and writing are interwoven with passages about Jungian analysis and Bible stories. These narratives lend shape to Sheila’s story but dilute its affective power. As a result, How Should a Person Be? registers as a curiously complacent text, resolutely turned inward towards itself, and absolutely unaware about the world insofar as the world does not revolve around Sheila and the people she knows. The “I” in How Should a Person Be? doesn’t extend outward, it merely reflects itself.
Sheila’s allusions to Biblical narratives and recollections of Jungian analysis underpin her ideas on the nature of “the soul”, which relies on some notion of stable selfhood and the idea of progress. By the end of the book, then, the reader is meant to realise that Sheila has grown or improved, and by that, achieved some form of purpose.
When she’s at her lowest, Sheila’s thoughts on Moses provide one layer of comfort: “I don’t need to be great like the leader of the Christian people. I can be a bumbling murderous coward like the king of the Jews” (“my King”, as she reminds us). It’s tongue-in-cheek (haha) but questions of destiny and selfhood and finding one’s place in the universe are questions that consume Sheila, and towards the end of the book, when things are all right once between her and Margaux after a major falling out, Sheila says, “Had anyone suggested at the time that it would not be the Egypt of the pharaohs that would survive and change the moral landscape of the world, but instead a group of Hebrew slaves, it would have seemed the ultimate absurdity.”
This maudlin attempt at drawing a connection, however tenuous, between her personal sense of triumph and the Biblical version of the triumph of Judaism leaves a rather bitter taste, particularly for a book that seems to have no sense of the continuously shifting cultural, social, and political landscapes of the present. (And really, by which instrument can we measure these changes to the moral landscape of the world? Like, does it happen every few years? Decades? Centuries? Does a bell go off somewhere when the moral landscape changes?)
In a parodic chapter titled “The White Men Go to Africa”, two white men from the local theatre scene, who are friends of Sheila’s, tell Sheila and Margaux about their trip to Africa. The chapter is a send-up of the narcissistic North American white men who feel the need to travel to Africa to rid themselves of their narcissism. Sheila is perfectly aware of how this plays:
“All the white men I know are going to Africa. They want to tell the stories of African women. They are so serious … All I want is to look back with no regrets. And perhaps go to Africa and return with the story of an impoverished black woman whose boyfriend has AIDS and drinks, and whose four babies have AIDS and drink—to communicate something of greater importance to North Americans than the poverty of my soul.”
Heti’s casual irony in this paragraph is what flavours the entire book and makes it distinctly unremarkable (and particularly tiresome for a reader outside of the milieu of a middle-class North American art scene). This paragraph seems to suggest that Sheila thinks the privileged white North American has only two choices: to take up the white man’s burden or retreat into the self and slip into everlasting solipsism. It’s a sly nod to the fact that Sheila is aware that narcissism is not solely the white man’ s domain and a tidily-executed personal jab meant to elicit yet another knowing laugh (haha) but whether Sheila actually cares about what she says or thinks is a little harder to grasp.
So much of her thoughts about destiny and the soul and the anguish of her Jewish forebears seems to obscure the various forms of privilege Sheila enjoys: She is an attractive, young North American white woman with a successful career in publishing and the arts. In her particular niche, she is fairly established. Probably because of this, she doesn’t really have to think about gender relations or feminism in terms of her own struggles with art or in relationships and sex, so that invariably all her musings on fucking and heterosexuality seem empty and shallow. For example, after Sheila talks about making out with a man who has warts on his hands, she says, “It had given me satisfaction that he was so ugly. This is the great privilege of being a woman—we get to decide. I have always welcomed the hunchbacks with a readiness I can only call justice.” No doubt it’s news to quite a number of women everywhere that the great privilege of being a woman is that we get to decide.
It’s not so much that Sheila is unlikeable, because honestly, that’s the silliest criticism of characters in fiction (and also one disproportionately volleyed at women writers and female characters)—it’s just that Sheila is so vacant, and despite herself, not at all interested in wading about the in muck of ugliness. How Should a Person Be? is steeped in the icky sheen of the language of self help and psychology and is primarily interested in the Well-Adjusted Self making Beautiful and Truthful Art. I never got the sense that there’s anything truly at stake for Sheila, even if she tells you that she’s humiliated by her encounters with Israel, or sad about the dissolution of her marriage, or wracked with pain over having deeply hurt Margaux. Because Sheila is on this quest for the ideal self, everything seems like a trial run and all her feelings seem like polished, carefully-orchestrated performances geared towards achieving a rather conventional goal: acceptance.
How Should a Person Be? is committed to tiresome Romantic notions of art and artistic creation, and vacillates between irony and sentimentalism. It brings to mind what Eva Illouz writes about in Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism about the merging of liberal, individualistic “rights” narratives with therapeutic language and its subsequent importance during the rise of second-wave feminism among middle-class women in North America. This might explain why it’s so hard to differentiate the liberal rah-rah rhetoric of late-capitalist choice feminism from the stirring poetics of a feminism that struggles with blazing a new trail between the private and the public. (Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl, vastly underrated in relation to the acclaim Heti’s novel has received, counts as a contemporary literary example of the latter.)
Illouz also talks about how the discourse of psychology is evacuated of structural socioeconomic inequality and power differences, enabling people to think of their problems—both failures and successes—in purely individual terms. The rise of therapeutic narratives, Illouz explains, dovetailed nicely with existing institutionalised religious narratives, because in both of these narratives “everything has a hidden meaning and purpose. In the same way that human miseries are explained by the assumption of a hidden divine plan, in the therapeutic narrative the choices that seem detrimental to us serve some hidden need and purpose. It is here that narratives of self-help and suffering connect for, if we secretly desire our misery, then the self can be made directly responsible for alleviating it.”
This distinctively conservative premise underpins How Should a Person Be?, which explains why the book might be mildly entertaining at times without provoking the barest frisson of disquiet. For all the inherent assumptions contained within its title, How Should a Person Be? conforms to existing norms and treads a safe, well-worn path towards artistic ambition and accomplishment.
Which is to say it’s particularly puzzling, then, that rave reviews of How Should a Person Be? appear to want to position the book as some sort of groundbreaking philosophical text in relation to sexual and gender relations. Miranda July calls it a “new kind of book … that risks everything—shatters every rule we women try to follow in order to be taken seriously” in her blurb, as thought before Heti there were no women taking brave risks in writing about their ugly, complicated, unpleasant, underprivileged, distinctly unlikeable personalities and lives.
Meanwhile, Margaret Atwood calls the book a “seriously strange but funny plunge into the quest for authenticity.” Much more interesting, I think, to read a book that examines and unsettles the very notion of authenticity, particularly in relation to the subjectivity of women writers. But that’s an unfair quibble, perhaps—Heti clearly wrote the book she wanted, one that entertains and offers a space to rest. What’s puzzling is how a book that’s so committed to a safe and conservative agenda is being hailed as something original and bold.
How Should a Person Be? might speak to other privileged artists who are already well-established and well-connected in the North American art and publishing scene, but if we are to take Kenneth Goldsmith’s blurb seriously—that this book “will continue to be read for 600 years … as a picture of artistic and literary North America in the first two decades of this century”—then artistic and literary North America will have to take the risk that this picture is of no interest to anyone outside of it.