How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti

How Should A Person Be?I’ve been a fan of Heti’s writing since The Middle Stories in 2001. With those strange and sometimes whimsical stories she seemed to be edging up to conventional structures only to more fully write against them. Her first novel, Ticknor (2005), was a remarkably tight, intense book that once again blurred the lines between genres and conventions (in particular the literary novel and the biography). It’s one of my favourite books of the last decade. And then in 2007 I read her interview with Dave Hickey in The Believer, in which she said, “Increasingly I’m less interested in writing about fictional people, because it seems so tiresome to make up a fake person and put them through the paces of a fake story. I just—I can’t do it.” It seemed to me a repudiation of what made her fiction striking, challenging, and fresh. On the surface it would seem that Ticknor was so successful because of how it manipulated fact with the tools of fiction, but that’s not the case at all; that’s so well-trod a path in Canadian letters it might be thought of as simply the default way of doing things. No, what made her first two books amazing was how fearlessly, and seemingly unselfconsciously, she made full use of the tools of fiction. The books were not only pleasures in their own right, but they were fine examples of the craft and skill required to make powerful art, and equally fine examples of why fiction is still a vital, valuable art form. I had a brief—and ridiculous—flash of feeling like she was betraying me as a reader. When that passed I found myself disagreeing with her in the most profound way possible (about it being “tiresome;” I find this relentless drive towards the insistence that literature must be “real” in some way to be interesting or have value to be short-sighted and to be rather spectacularly missing the point, though I understand that Heti was speaking only for herself as a writer, not as a representative of some larger cultural push). Anyway, while I was certainly able to dismiss my feeling of “betrayal” as the nonsense that it was, I was left with a sense of unease whenever I thought about approaching her upcoming work.

And then How Should A Person Be? came out. (Full disclosure: Heti herself arranged for me to be sent a review copy.) I honestly can’t remember having this much difficulty deciding what I think—or how I feel—about a book. I will say this: How Should A Person Be? is either absolutely brilliant, or a complete mess. I’m leaning towards brilliant, but it’s far from being a done deal in my mind. The book is certainly bold: a great deal has been said in the press about how bluntly Heti has written about sex in the novel (her semi-fictional self’s rhapsodizing about blowjobs and her lover’s penis bears a striking resemblance to a branch of erotica called “penis worship,” or sometimes more bluntly, “cock worship”), and to hear some literary critics and book reporters tell it we should still blush whenever a woman writes about sex as though she might actually have had some at some point in her life. I didn’t find those passages shocking in the slightest; rather they were incredibly refreshing for their honesty. I really just wanted to shout “it’s about fucking time!” when I read them. Sex is a powerful, necessary force in our lives, and it’s rare in Canadian literature (outside of obvious examples like Russell Smith) to find a writer willing to write about sex in a way that captures the pleasures of lust and the complexity of why we have sex and how we feel about it in a way that doesn’t also imply a stifling, reactionary morality or Nicholas Sparks-style Vaseline on the lens (the only place you’d find any kind of lubrication in those books at all). Plus, some of those scenes were kind of hot, and though we like to pretend that kind of thing doesn’t matter in “literature,” that’s complete bullshit; everything is fair game. What Heti is doing is making full use of all the tools available to her.

The prose in How Should A Person Be? has all the classic Heti hallmarks; direct, uncomplicated, “quirky” if you must, but here it has a loose, open quality that reminds me most of mid-Twentieth Century American writers like Salinger (Cather in the Rye in particular) and early Pynchon (V. in particular). It’s not an element that I connect with easily; it comes off as sincere, almost innocent, while simultaneously keeping the reader at a distance emotionally. Combined with Heti’s signature style it would be fair to call the result inelegant, but I think it makes more sense to think of it as stripped down. I wouldn’t go so far as to namedrop Brecht, but I bet their books go to a lot of the same parties. The absence of lyricism or overt stylistic flourishes is like those fake trees that have silk leaves and trunks made of real wood; if you take away the most obviously fake elements (the leaves, the flourishes), it paradoxically makes the remaining “real” element appear all the more artificial. I think that’s a big part of why How Should A Person Be? can sometimes feel alienating, even when Heti (the character) is relating some pretty intense stuff. That’s not a complaint; the book never feels difficult or forced or too artificial. It’s an awkward kind of beauty, like watching the hipster girls on College Street who are gorgeous despite wearing those hideously over-sized glasses and American Apparel knockoffs of ’80s porn fashions, enacting nostalgia for an era they weren’t fully present for—if they were present at all—and don’t really understand.

With a book like this it’s tempting to equate Heti and her friend Margaux Williamson—the characters—with their real world counterparts, but that temptation diminishes considerably if you’ve read any of Heti’s non-fiction writing (including her interviews). Heti has a sophisticated mind and is capable of some pretty nuanced thinking about art and philosophy, but much of what goes through the mind of Heti the character fails—appropriately, given her emotional turmoil, the alcohol, and the drugs—to rise above the level of a couple of undergrads shouting at each other over the noise of Dave Matthews being played on a broken down stereo at some pub-in-a-box. Heti may—for now—be done with making up characters and putting them through their paces in a made-up world, but she’s certainly not done with artificiality or the tension, and indeed the freedom, it can afford.

All of this has just been me thinking out loud; I’m still uncertain how I feel about How Should A Person Be? but what is absolutely clear is that almost two months after reading it (yes, I’m very far behind), I still can’t get it out of my head. I’m sorry it took so long for Heti to find a US publisher. Love it or hate it, it’s a book that deserves to be thought and talked about.

How Should A Person Be? was my third selection for the Fourth Canadian Book Challenge.


Writer. Editor. Critic.

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