Lately, we've had heaping, head-tossing and testicle-scratching over the state of literary criticism in this country. So, when Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be? landed in my lap, my immediate quandary was What Should This Review Be? My reading of this book, like the form of the book itself, would need to be collaboration. I should avoid summarizing what it is not, and what it should be, and should greet and investigate the book on its terms rather than mine. I may not succeed.
On Page 27, Heti describes Sheila and Margaux's first outing to an art gallery after they've made and broken a number of plans:
"We met up at the northernmost subway station and waited for the bus. As we boarded it, we learned from the driver that it was a forty-minute drive - something neither of us had anticipated.
"And the whole way up, and the whole way back, we sat there silently, each too intimidated by the other to say a thing."
It wasn't long after this that my collaborative experience with Sheila (Heti) and Margaux (Williamson) shaped itself like this:
I galloped around after the pair of them like an urban horse. Took the odd fence. Missed the odd fence. I asked Sheila why she romanticizes visual artists. Margaux may have agreed or disagreed or may just have had something in her eye. Then we got into the boxing ring, where we remained happily until the end of the book, doing a considerable amount of psychological knitting.
There's much to be said for collaboration and inquisition and there are protracted amounts of both in Heti's novel. The book, described as a "fictional notebook," is a recording of the curiosity and conundrums of one woman, Sheila. The form of this inquiry owes more to social anthropology or documentary than fiction. This is a beguiling choice on Heti's part that is stimulating when blended into literary fiction.
With that blending in mind, the novel, over all, becomes a departure point for the reader. A springboard into other (life) interactions, noticing and reckonings drawn from the book and back to it, rather than created within it. Onward and outward is where the book should take its readers, unless they're in a coma or addicted to World of Warcraft. And, as with all departures, you could land on inspiration, on your rump, or in tatters.
The unexpectedly enjoyable thing about Heti's work is that, regardless of where she puts her net out (and it's never in the same spot twice), both of her previous books - The Middle Stories and Ticknor - had distinctly different tones. Heti takes consistent pleasure in exploring contradiction and injecting erratic humour. (Her humour has the clout of a cricket bat.)
This time, she has, sensibly, upped the humour quotient and loosened the tucked-in shirt that was Ticknor. She gives us precise details of the mental and physical plodding (literally the actual recorded conversations) of herself (or a fictional self) and a gang of young artists. At the centre unrolls a near-forensic examination of the complexities of a new friendship with painter Margaux (based on Heti's friend Margaux Williamson, also a painter). Add about 50 other strains of wondering, and you have some idea of the territory. A telephone directory of anxiety.
Within its structure, the novel features a five-act play (Sheila's) which is to be written within a novel (Sheila's), and this is book-ended by the clunky construct of an ugly painting competition among the gang of artists. (Everyone else.)
The most engaging part of the novel is the platonic, intellectual love affair between Sheila and Margaux and their respective learning and negotiation of how a person should be - and the problems that manifest when a person "is" or "does be." In one such dip in the friendship, Sheila pings off to a creepy male lover, Israel, who sends her instructions for solo public sex performances according to his lobotomized porn menu. Heti's settling of Sheila's ongoing trials with Israel and the place in which she finds herself - between sex positivism and a pervert's manipulations - provides splendid writing and a striking inversion of assumptions about sexual power and where it lies (and how it can be reclaimed).
If such a novel sounds like hard work, it's not. If anything, it's not hard enough work. When you go to this extent to invoke and provoke with form, we want challenging content too, so Heti could have gone much further.
Mercifully, in such constrained publishing times, what Heti's brain and fingertips offer are expanded possibilities for what the novel can be and can become. She's on her way to something original and bolder. In the meantime, How Should a Person Be? makes curious and combative company.
Anakana Schofield (mrsokana.wordpress.com) is a Vancouver-based writer.