[This review first appeared in The Ottawa Review of Books in their October issue]
It’s hard enough to live, why lose? Sheila Heti paints her professional and artistic identity in this multi-hued solitary and social quest for that quintessential peace of mind! Her journey is self-guided with a supporting cast of friends, strangers and acquaintances who impact her life immediately, remotely and indelibly. Her prose is fluent, seeking, and sometimes bullet-like. None of the mess of her inner soul spills onto these pages even if there are wine-stained napkins or tears. She’s forever eloquent and even glib about her point of life.
Sheila tackles the question that befuddles many. How should a person be? There is no irony, no sarcasm here. This is a plain story about an intelligent (or intellectual) woman finding her footing in the traffic jam of a commerce-filled life. That she is Canadian or lives in Toronto never really gets talked about. She could be anybody (or any woman) in the first world. With a first-rate mind and manner she scatters her soul’s discontents.
Her struggle is with finishing her play. She is a playwright, or it’s a profession she most identifies with – there is nothing in the whole book that proves her talent or success at it, but her conviction is soul-wrenching and compelling. She almost sounds like an anonymous phone caller in these revelations. She wants to finish writing her play but she also wants to finish paying attention to all the critical ingredients of her life so she can join the wagon of twenty-first century blowjob artistes only so that she can live with the times and age with grace.
Her friends Margeaux, Sholem and Israel are also her antagonists and guinea pigs. That is, they talk her through or out of life! She needs their nurture and to help her change the world with her mind shattering play, beliefs, ideals, etc. We are living with a lot of etcetera here in a plot that is structured like a five-act play and are confronted by the ambiguities and ambivalence that crowd the post-war, post-poverty, post-feminist writer’s landscape.
Self-help has role models and Sheila too looks for precedents of successful or Important Artists because the fallback plan to everything (namely failed love or life) is to “become insanely ambitious or self-driven”! She breaks up cities by the odds of becoming important in those places based on where “Important Artists” already lived. She shortlists 16 cities where more than one Important Artist lived: “six held only two artists who were Important: Buenos Aires, Rio, Vancouver, Leipzig, Tokyo, Cologne. I eliminated those six, for the odds were too small of becoming Important there, and I was left with only nine cities, where three or more Important Artists lived:
Mexico City 6
Los Angeles 9
New York 30
In the future, would the list say:
Toronto 3? “
She moves to New York.
She does not want to own the world and she does. It’s the nonchalance of a conqueror, the freedom to be, that she is really after. Personality she says is an invention of the news media and inside the body there is just temperature. You have to forget about your soul and do what you are required to do and to get lost in your soul is to miss the whole point of life, she says. She wants a simple life or “a life of undying fame that I don’t have to participate in.” She (like everyone) has no thoughts, and “no good details” to her life, and this is the quality of fame or celebrity she wants and is among the several rich monologues that fill this book.
There are points of thought you’d agree or disagree with, but agreement is inconsequential to her message perhaps. She is just another nobody woman trying to break out of the herd-collective. “One good thing about being a woman is we haven’t too many examples yet of what a genius looks like. It could be me. There is no ideal model for how my mind should be.” She names a few men, “Mark Z., and you, Christian B. You just keep peddling your phoney-baloney genius crap, while I’m up giving blowjobs in heaven.” She does not want to be right either. She just wants to finish her play. With one fell sweep she restructures, resigning to the call of her curiosity.
So how does a person want to be? Sheila just wants to finish her play. Is she able to do this? Pleasure is difficult business; you’ll have to read the book to experience a mere fraction of it.
How Should a Person Be is published by Harvill Secker.