How Should A Person Be?

How Should A Person Be? (Sheila Heti)

How should a person be, indeed? Is there ANYONE who wouldn’t be interested in the potential answers to this question?

I already know that this is going to be one of my favorite books of 2016. It may be the best book I’ve read this year so far, period. Like many books I love, it contains the following pleasing qualities: humor, a complete lack of traditional plot, discussions of art and art-making, and women who don’t like men explaining things to them.

It is difficult to summarize this book (another common quality of books I enjoy). Reviewers have described it as semi-autobiographical (the narrator and the main character share the same name, occupation, and background details, and even have the same real-life friends, kind of like Borges writing about Bioy Casares in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”). The novel has also been described as a play on the self-help book (I guess because of the chapter titles, ranging from “What is Freedom?” to “How Great It Is To Be An Adult”), or even a Knausgård-like, meandering narrative (even though I think it was published before he got famous). It also includes real-life e-mails and transcripts of conversations, which gives it a strange metafictional quality.

The main characters in this book are Sheila (a playwrite) and Margaux (a painter). What do they do? They hold competitions for making the Ugliest Painting Ever. They meet Keanu Reeves. They go through a brief phase of taking too many drugs. Sheila struggles with writer’s block, contemplates the fallout of her marriage and moves briefly to New York. Some people might find the drifting, self-absorbed characters in this book totally annoying (the narrator especially), and that’s okay. I personally thought it was hysterical. Isn’t art wonderful?! The way it can be subjective, and how different people can like different things?

In the opening passage, the narrator doesn’t beat around the bush, delving right into the book’s central question:

How should a person be? I sometimes wonder about it, and I can’t help answering like this: a celebrity. But for all that I love celebrities, I would never move somewhere that celebrities actually exist. My hope is to live a simple life… By a simple life, I mean a life of undying fame that I don’t have to participate in. I don’t want anything to change, except to be as famous as one can be, but without that changing anything. Everyone would know in their hearts thatI am the most famous person alive–but not talk about it too much. (2)

Would it be TMI if I reveal that I’ve encountered people like this? People who aren’t really interested in writing, but are more interested in being Writers, with a capital W? (These people are few and far in between, thank god, and none were encountered at my graduate school!) But yeah. That has definitely been a strange part of my life in the past four years… of dealing with this idea that people want ATTENTION and FAME and GLORY and ACCLAIM and (yes) MONEY from writing, rather than the satisfaction of a job well done.

Let’s get real: I am happy as a claim that my book is being published and blessed beyond belief. But I also feel wary. When I feel myself freaking out about this kind of literary life, the Writer life, the kind of life that has absolutely nothing to do with the act of writing itself (so thoughts like WHAT IF MY BOOK GETS PUBLISHED AND NO ONE GIVES A FUUUUUUQ AND MY PARENTS SAY AWKWARD THINGS ABOUT IT??) I just remind myself of my literary heroes, like Bolaño, Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka. Punching myself in the face and telling myself DON’T BE A DUMB DICKHEAD is also helpful ;D

This was one of the themes in this book that I found fascinating–that of Being An Artist as opposed to Making Art. Sheila (the character, and apparently the author as well, when this novel was being written) struggles throughout to finish her play. In contrast to Sheila is Margaux (apparently a successful Canadian painter in real life, to whom the book is dedicated):

Margaux worked harder at art and was more skeptical of its effects than any artist I knew. Though she was happier in her studio than anywhere else, I never heard her claim that painting mattered. She hoped it could be meaningful, but had her doubts, so worked doubly hard to make her choice of being a painter as meaningful as it could be. She never talked about galleries or went on about which brands of paint were best. Sometimes she felt bad and confused that she had not gone into politics–which seemed more straightforwardly useful… Her first feeling every morning was shame about all the things wrong in the world that she wasn’t trying to fix. (17)

Yeah. I am a fan of the Margaux school of thought, in terms of gettin’ it done. Early on in the novel Margaux is involved in a competition with another painter, Sholem, a competition that involves painting the ugliest painting ever, a process which Sholem describes as something that made him feel “like I just raped myself.” This attempt to paint ‘ugly’ on purpose leads to some interesting discussions:

Sholem was saying that freedom, for him, is having the technical facility to be able to execute whatever he wants, just whatever images he has in his mind. But that’s not freedom! That’s control, or power. Whereas I think Margaux understands freedom to be the freedom to take risks, the freedom to do something bad or to appear foolish. To not recognize that difference is a pretty big thing. (19)

I love this idea–that of the importance of taking risks, and having something come out badly. As Margaux says near the end, “Better to have your failure right in front of you than the fantasy in your head.” (240) Or as Sheila is warned at one point (in terms of people who are obsessed with perfection):

In their quest for a life without failure, suffering, or doubt, that is what they achieve: a life empty of all those things that make a human life meaningful… The answer for them is to build on what they have begun and not abandon their plans as soon as things start getting difficult. They must work–without escaping into fantasies about being the person who worked. (84-85)

I highly recommend this book to fans of Jenny Offhil, Miriam Toews and Lorrie Moore. I love books like this, that do something so unusual and unexpected.

Here are some other quotes I enjoyed.

We are all specks of dirt, all on this earth at the same time. I look at all the people who are alive today and think, These are my contemporaries. These are my fucking contemporaries! We live in an age of some really great blow-job artists. (3)

I felt like I was the tin man, the lion, and the scarecrow in one. I could not feel my heart, I had no courage, I could not use my brain. (27)

I am writing a play. I am writing a play that is going to save the world. If it only saves three people, I will not be happy. If with this play, the oil crisis is merely averted and our standard of living maintains itself at its current level, I will weep into my oatmeal. If this play does anything short of announcing the arrival of the next cock–I mean, messiah–I will shit into my oatmeal. (87)

You have to know where the funny is, and if you know where the funny is, you know everything. (98)

I sat there with the book on my knees, moving carefully through the pages, like a beautiful, anxious, pregnant young mother studying for her medical school exams. (189)

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Filed under books, fiction, review, women writers

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