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How should a novel be? Don’t ask Sheila Heti Add to ...

With that helpful prod from the avant garde, the doors flew open for HSPB. “Suddenly, eight or 10 publishers wanted it,” Heti says.

The next thing she knew, she was in Manhattan doing “one interview after the next” with an excited media just prior to the book’s U.S. publication by Henry Holt, an imprint of U.S. giant Macmillan. The most auspicious appointment was a photo shoot with The New Yorker for an article about which the magazine would tell her little. “They were very, very secretive,” she says.

The result was a long, intense, sharply ambivalent but clearly impressed review by critic James Wood, easily the most influential tastemaker in English-language literature today. The review was accompanied by a full-page colour photo of a former gamine looking stern and glamorous on the streets of Manhattan.

Heti remains tetchy about the experience. “I don’t think it was a positive review,” she says, carefully eyeing her rabbit as it forages for extension cords to nibble. “Make sure there’s nothing she can eat that looks like a twiggy thing,” she adds.

Despite his cavils – Wood said he could hear better dialogue than Heti’s in any Starbucks – the review set off a wave of applause that swept the book pages of the nation, crossed the ocean, and crested again in Great Britain. Heti’s odd, anti-novelistic pastiche has both delighted and confused reviewers, the confusion in no way dimming their delight.

One would have to go back a generation – two, perhaps, to Munro – to find a Canadian author who has enjoyed such an acclaimed international debut.

Unbeknownst to himself, Wood played a seminal role in the creation of How Should a Person Be? It took the form of a paragraph from a 2006 article he wrote about Flaubert, which delineated the apparently inviolable rules that have governed the modern novel ever since the 1856 publication of Madame Bovary: its emphasis on “visual noticing” and “the telling and brilliant detail,” the “unsentimental composure” that “judges good and bad equally,” and not least the paradox of the author’s fingerprints being “traceable but not visible.”

“I copied that out and thought, ‘My book is going to be the opposite of all those things he mentioned,’” Heti recalls. “It was so easy. He gave me this great gift.”

Rather than vision, HSPB privileges voice, which is often presented in the form of verbatim transcripts from actual conversations. Rather than remaining invisible, the winsome naif Sheila is all over every page of her book, acting out her authorial role in witty disarray.

Heti’s zeal for literary experimentation originated when she first read Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, which famously begins with its hero waking one morning to discover he had become a giant cockroach.

“When I read that, something clicked in my head,” Heti says. “It was probably the first thing I ever read as an adult that really excited me. I thought, ‘Oh! You can do that? You can do anything you want?’”

That revelation eventually matured into Ticknor, Heti’s first novel – and “such a modernist book,” she says. “I was thinking about Beckett and Joyce and all these people who made very dense works on the margins,” she says. Ticknor is likewise “forbidding.” And that explains the apparent U-turn that is HSPB.

“I wanted this book to be something that anybody could read,” Heti says. “It was an experiment of being contemporary.” Like Andy Warhol pop. “The idea of this delicious surface, you know. That’s what I wanted: a delicious, seemingly easy, bubbly surface.”

Whether or not that surface hides depths depends on how one reads the book, Heti says, pointedly offering no guidance in the matter. “Sheila” in the book expresses a very contemporary position, Heti says. “But I can’t say what that is in an authorial voice. I can only say what that is in the specific voice of this character.”

What’s new about Heti is her refusal of omniscience, and all the narrative conventions that follow from it. “I just couldn’t write a book like that because I wouldn’t be interested enough to get to the end,” she says. A book in which characters are knowable and the world stays steady as they slowly evolve along the familiar rigging of a narrative arc. “I really don’t know what I would be doing in that book.”

Who does she think she is, treating the mainstream literature so beloved by Canadian readers with such high-handed disdain?

“I don’t know!” Heti replies emphatically. “I mean, that’s the whole point.”

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