Book Review: Sheila Heti's 'How Should a Person Be?' -- part novel, part nonfiction -- asks familiar, yet important questions


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These days, it's difficult to be a young, straight woman and not drown in every pop culture message telling you how you should be. How you should be with boyfriends, with girlfriends, with non-sexual male friends, with colleagues.

Sheila Heti's book "How Should a Person Be?" which calls itself "a novel from life," and, according to the publisher, contains both fiction and true stories, unabashedly sets out to answer this question.

But then, it really doesn't.


"HOW SHOULD A PERSON BE?"
By Sheila Heti
Henry Holt ($25).

The literary Ms. Heti, now 35, dedicates the book to her best friend, Margaux, a painter. Both live in Toronto and inhabit an artistic social circle. The story takes place as Sheila is struggling. She can't perfect a play she's been writing for years, she's having degrading sex with a man who both excites and frightens her, and she has few friends. Enter Margaux.

At first, the two women struggle to be friends. Sheila doesn't show up for Margaux's birthday party, and Margaux responds in the following way (all email conversations in the book are written like this):

... i could never find fault in someone for choosing not to be my friend. but i was disappointed not to have a girl, after searching high and low.

6. but the boys i know might be girly enough for me. and girly boys are much easier to boss around than a girl, of course.

7. to sum up, i'm not very smooth with married women, am i? but i will relax a little.

8. no response required, my pet, especially if i have hurt or troubled you.

Much of the "novel's" pages are filled with transcript-like conversations between the two women. Sheila begins tape-recording conversations with her friend soon after they meet, mostly because she thinks their talks might contain an answer to the question she poses in the title. The content of many of the conversations and reflections in the book is unsettling. They are graphic and selfish and make you wonder if Sheila likes herself at all. But mostly, it's all a bit unsettling because of its familiarity.

Lena Dunham's new HBO hit, "Girls," immediately comes to mind in trying to decide whether "How Should a Person Be?" is a good read. It is impossible to get around the fact that this is a well-told story. The narrative threads converge as they should. Almost nothing is overwritten. Ms. Heti's prose is powerful and evocative in a brave sort of way, and her emotions are believable. She's not new to this, after all; she's an editor for The Believer magazine and her co-written book of "conversational philosophy" was a New Yorker Best Book of 2011. Her adroitness with story is thinly layered here, though; it would be possible to miss her talent beneath the raw emotion.

But like "Girls," it's hard to like Ms. Heti's book in the middle of reading it. Despite glimmers of light throughout, it feels weighty and dark, as though the question Ms. Heti keeps posing -- how should a person be? -- has no answer, or at least not one she's going to find.

Still, the novel holds a kind of philosophical truth somewhere in its pages. In trying to make art life and life art -- in narrating each mistake, each face-burning embarrassment and low moment, Ms. Heti cultivates a voice that speaks without tremor. And though it may not fully answer the question of how we should be, her book does answer the question of how we are.

One might argue that literature always does this, but something about Ms. Heti's real life bleeding through the pages makes this book feel unique. It's as though we've inadvertently tuned into the darkest reality television show of all time, where no one has edited the feed, and all we get is hours and hours of one distraught woman staring straight into the camera, fictionalizing a bit but staying true to some core emotion. Beneath the cultivated nonchalance lies a narrative with finely crafted construction.

The story is told with magnifying-glass attention to detail interspersed with a few zoom-out moments of genuinely touching reflection; it avoids preaching because of this mix of small with large. And Ms. Heti makes herself a voice for women, for young people, for aspiring artists -- for anyone who seeks a beauty in life that they have not yet found -- precisely because she refuses to speak for anyone but herself.

So this book is not about how to be. A refrain in the book comes from something Margaux says early on, recalling a man she once met: "He was just another man trying to teach me something." Sheila says the same thing later about a man she meets -- and then a chapter later, about herself.

Ms. Heti may, indeed, be at the forefront of a new fiction movement that challenges the boundaries between reality and art. But it doesn't feel like she's a maverick on purpose, or that she's telling anyone else to be an artistic boundary-breaker like her.

It feels instead like reading the intimacies of a friend, spilled daringly into your hands for you to do with them what you will. Yet it's hard not to feel as if you're being taught some of the most important lessons a person can learn.

bookreviews

Sanjena Sathian, an English major at Yale University, is a summer intern at the Post-Gazette (ssathian@post-gazette.com).


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