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book review

Update: Sheila Heti has posted a thoughtful response to this article. You can read it here.

The old order changeth, yielding place to new, and CanLit fulfills itself in many ways. But certain patterns survive. Thus, Canada's latest literary shooting star, Sheila Heti, agrees that grand dowager Alice Munro chose "the perfect Canadian title" for a collection of stories first published in 1978, when Munro was a shooting star and Heti an infant: Who Do You Think You Are? Nobody has ever come right out and asked Heti that question. But the quirky "novel from life" that has brought her international renown over the past year, How Should a Person Be?, is in some ways a direct, albeit facetious answer.

Munro's question reverberates even in the publication history of Heti's poppish, "pseudo-autobiographical" anti-novel – greeted with skepticism, and quickly forgotten, when first published in Canada almost three years ago; hailed as a major achievement by top taste makers upon publication in New York one year ago.

Among the sometimes sharp-edged laurels Heti has collected since then are a nomination for the world's top prize for women writers; a place on Time magazine's shortlist of the most influential people of 2013; and a hilarious 600-word précis of the novel, published in Britain's The Guardian.

"How should a person be?" it begins.

"For years and years I asked it of everyone I met. And then I thought, sod it, I'll just talk to my friends about it and try to pass it off as a novel." Heti, The Guardian noted accurately, is "the Canadian who has become a literary sensation in the U.S." In that, her story would seem yet again to dramatize the deficiencies of a culture indifferent to its own achievements, still reliant on imperial approval to define itself.

"It seems to be true in my case, and it has been from the beginning," says Heti, chatting on a springish afternoon in the light-filled, book-lined firetrap of a Toronto apartment she shares with a large rabbit and a small cat.

Rejected by literary journals across Canada, her first stories found print in McSweeney's out of San Francisco, beginning the pattern that recurred a decade later with How Should a Person Be?, her second novel. "Even though the book was published here first, the response – the real chorus – came first from the States," she says. "That didn't happen at all here."

But that doesn't bother Heti. She never applied to join Team Canada. Besides, she asks, "Who expects to be loved at home?"

In truth, Heti resistance was never exclusively Canadian. How Should a Person Be? was turned down by Heti's U.S. publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, as well as by most of the Canadian publishers who read the first draft. And it was a Canadian publisher, House of Anansi, that first took a chance on what the author herself describes as "a weird book."

Heti has never lacked for attention at home, according to Anansi publisher Sarah MacLachlan, even to the point of being a "media darling." Even so, pre-HSPB, she added, Heti's sales were scant. "But we always get excited when America pays attention, don't we?"

How Should a Person Be? follows a familiar trajectory last traced by Yann Martel's Life of Pi, another book "highly ignored" when first published in Canada, according to MacLachlan, but that became a huge international bestseller after being brought out in London.

Heti's attempt to sell her novel in New York was not helped by what she called the "kind of snarky" reviews that greeted the Canadian edition. "Still, nobody wanted it," she says.

But then the famous star-making machinery of the mighty republic finally came to life. The process began when Mark Greif of the influential online literary magazine n+1, to which Heti is a contributor, published two excerpts from the book, one of them showcasing its bravura sex writing.

"I had been reading Sheila's earlier books," Greif said in an interview, "and it was clear that here was a genuine artist, someone who was not run-of-the-mill, who didn't fit the popular categories." The fact that Heti could not sell the book in New York "made me ashamed for big-city publishing in New York, for all its literary pretensions," Greif said.

The "Canadian problem" looked different from the south. "What was striking to me was that in Toronto Sheila is known and people recognize her for her art, not just as a personality," Greif said.

Greif's indignation proved contagious. Soon a long article condemning New York publishers for their timidity appeared in The New York Observer. "Jonathan Franzen can get away with things Sheila can't because he's a boy," art critic Dave Hickey was quoted as saying. "Getting a blow job is different from giving one."

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."