Alphabetical Diaries

  • By Sheila Heti
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • 224 pp.

These inwardly focused ruminations are alternately solipsistic and sublime.

Alphabetical Diaries

Sheila Heti’s experimental new book, Alphabetical Diaries, is built on a singular premise: to record her thoughts over a 10-year period and then alphabetize them.

What, a reader might wonder, constitutes a thought? For Heti, it’s a fully formed sentence, and rather than coding them according to theme or otherwise creating categories, her alphabetization is based entirely on the first letter of each sentence — which makes for a largely arbitrary arrangement. Thoughts bump up against one another, often by pure accident, the sublime and the petty appearing side by side with no hierarchical ordering, no causation. For example, the following appears under the letter I:

“I should get my passport renewed. I should go to bed soon. I should go to sleep. I should have come straight home after the salon, not gone to meet Lars. I should live according to my feelings and see what comes — that is, my independent feelings, not the feelings which are attempts to mirror other people’s feelings. I should not be so flattered if a man gets an erection around me. I should not have painted clear polish over my nails. I should not neglect the plant. I should not write off Ellis as a golden boy. I should remember that literature is the dark arts, and is probably not going to save my life or wind me up in some pretty, happy, conventional place.”

One of the main effects of alphabetization is the complete sundering of chronology, which makes a traditional narrative arc impossible. In sentences that cluster around her grandmother, for instance, we learn of the woman’s death before her illness: “Grandma died. Grandma has been sick. Grandma is ailing still. Grandma said that sex is the glue. Grandma said, and she knew from experience, never leave your home.

Though the book provides no linear structure for readers to follow, it does reveal many of Heti’s preoccupations, around which her thoughts swirl as she returns again and again to two central concerns: her writing life and her dating life. In addressing her work, Heti often castigates herself: “Write your book, you self-indulgent fool. Writing your damn books is the only thing that makes anything worthwhile.” In another section, she writes:

“The book feels arid and empty to me now, like a shrivelled arm that can’t raise itself to shake your hand; a withered arm and a hand. The book is beautiful and practically perfect. The book is coming along well; it’s achieving beauty, symmetry, proportion, harmony, and a kind of freedom. The book is difficult. The book is good. The book is not yet done, but that’s okay. The book is working its way through me.”

Often, though, her work and her romantic life are in conflict. “For there is only one pleasure that doesn’t fade, and that’s not love — that’s art,” she writes. There are certain names that recur throughout the book — Pavel, Lars, Vig — with whom she had long, often tumultuous relationships, but little sense can be made of these relationships. Some of their stories are concentrated under sentences beginning with names, as in the case of Lars:

“Lars is a beautiful man. Lars is not going to write me back, either because he is a selfish and uncaring person, or because I’m a bad and selfish person. Lars is not interested in being your boyfriend or your husband, ever. Lars is not interested in you. Lars is not superior to any man. Lars is not superior to any of my friends. Lars is reticent and secret and private. Lars is self-absorbed and self-pitying. Lars is so beautiful and I love having him in bed with me. Lars is so truly not in love with me. Lars is the most amazing-looking man I have ever seen. Lars is the sort who will always leave.”

Even in these concentrations, when all of the sentences are on the same topic, there is no chronology or causation. Rather, we are left with a sense of the turmoil within this relationship and Heti’s wildly fluctuating emotional states.

Some interesting patterns emerge in the book; certain sentence structures lead to certain types of thoughts. To wit, sentences beginning with “No” are a list of admonitions. “No more controlling. No more Facebook. No more mysticism, or not so much. No more playing a part. No more second-guessing. No more stupid assignments. No more Twitter. No more worrying.” Sentences beginning with “Maybe,” in contrast, tend to be speculative:

“Maybe my fantasies for my life are those of a much younger person, who hadn’t yet become this person, or was on her way to being someone else but ended up as this person, and no longer needs to pin her girlish hopes on frail or too-simplistic fantasies, like some Madame Bovary. Maybe my twenties were about writing and finding a man, and my thirties will be about being with him and learning how to write.”

Elsewhere, questions cluster with a sense of urgency:

“Why can’t I just be happy and organize my life as I would like it to be, as I would most want to live it? Why do I feel like I’m playing around? Why do I look for symbols? Why do women go mad? Why does one bra clasp in the front and the other in the back? Why don’t I go somewhere warm, where there is the ocean and I can swim every day? Why is all this coming out now? Why is this drama necessary? Why not just accept things? Why not let the worst occur?”

Occasionally, side-by-side sentences offer a striking juxtaposition: “If I get killed, it’s been enough of a life. If I got a pair of white shorts, another pair of jeans, and some tank tops and some shoes and one T-shirt, I would be set for the entire summer and beyond.” Sometimes, Heti’s aspirations are related to the sublime:

“I would like to know life’s laws. I would like to open up the universe, particularly the human universe and the human heart. I would like to think about consciousness and God these next few years.”

What are we left with in the end? Alphabetical Diaries does not leave us with a story but rather with the feeling of having been pulled into the swirling vortex of another mind as it traces and retraces its preoccupations. The sensation of reading this book is akin to claustrophobia, as we are trapped in another mind that cannot see beyond itself — a mind that is vapid and insular, self-absorbed and recursive, but that at times rises to ask probing questions or make astute observations.

Heti’s work shows us how stripping a story of its chronology (and thereby keeping us from becoming engrossed in a narrative) lays bare the circularity and repetitiveness of her thought processes and our own. For the larger question here is about ourselves: Stripped of direction and order, wouldn’t all our thoughts and the stories we tell about ourselves reveal our glaring limitations, our confinement to a narrow self?

Yelizaveta P. Renfro is the author of a book of nonfiction, Xylotheque: Essays, and a collection of short stories, A Catalogue of Everything in the World. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, Creative Nonfiction, North American Review, Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, South Dakota Review, Witness, Reader's Digest, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from George Mason University and a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska.

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