How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life
- Sheila Heti
- Henry Holt and Co.
- Reviewed by Nicole Schultheis
- July 18, 2012
The author, as a character in her own novel, tries to figure out how to craft her art and live.
Reviewed by Nicole Schultheis
At the beginning of Sheila Heti’s novel, How Should a Person Be?, two young painters decide to hold a competition to see who can make the ugliest painting. One of them, Sholem, plunges in and completes his entry right away. The painting makes him sick, and he tosses it into his basement. The other painter, Margaux, does not produce hers until the end of the story. In between, Sheila Heti — blocked playwright, failed wife and the real-life author of this intentionally messy, confessional novel — tries to figure out not who she is, but how to be.
Sheila seems to be going about it all right, having discovered in the talented Margaux a new friend who understands or at least tolerates Sheila’s intrusive recording of their conversations in order to learn how Margaux goes about being Margaux. But then there is Israel, a trickster figure, to whose warped eroticism Sheila keeps finding herself drawn. Israel has this Dom/sub thing going on with Sheila, and oh boy, Sheila gets it. Still, it’s eating her up. Margaux can’t help; she is painting, so she sets Sheila down in the next room to watch TV. Sheila emerges, crying, and says, “Love is a battle between the sexes in which the man always wins because that’s more erotic for everyone!” Margaux — based on the author’s real-life friend, painter and filmmaker Margaux Williamson — isn’t fazed and keeps on painting.
This novel is slyly funny and not-so-slyly philosophical. Sheila envisions herself as a sort of Moses figure, lost in the desert. At odd moments in the narrative, sand must be brushed from tables, which is Sheila’s Post-It note to the reader that means now pay attention. Returning from her trip to the desert (also known as New York, with a brief side trip to Atlantic City), she realizes there can be no excuse for her long, unexplained absence from the beauty salon where she works; she tries to quit her job before she can be fired. But the stylists are entangled in their own hair-brained dilemma, and Sheila’s three-page (!) letter of resignation is not well received. The owner does her hair. Sheila emerges, changed, but the real transformation has already happened, elsewhere.
Sheila Heti has constructed this novel as a masterly patchwork. Real conversations, emails and other entirely ordinary events, albeit from the lives of “artists,” are mixed up with much larger concerns: connections between ugliness and beauty; love, empathy and sense of self versus the other; being versus doing/making, emptying and filling, destiny versus journey and the value of serendipity co-extant with the necessity of choices. All the things that ordinary people either come to terms with, or don’t, as they come of age. Sheila’s struggles as a literary artist are as naked as our own. For the reader, what seems at first to be a pointless spate of belly-button gazing and whining by an artist whose work is probably not all that interesting turns out to be an oeuvre of real meaning after all.
There are writers whose work is painterly because they are also painters. There are writers who make music and their books are like songs. Sheila Heti’s novel is like a sculpture, made of found objects, including the detritus of her life. The message of this particular sculpture is that we aren’t in art school any longer, that we must either create our own boundaries or allow them to be absent, and then just get on with it.
Nicole Schultheis is the outgoing President of the Maryland Writers’ Association. She is a lawyer and employment consultant who helps senior federal jobseekers polish their writing for career advancement. Her writing clients work for all of the federal entities that start with “N,” and lots of others besides.