Book review: How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti

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How should a person be? It’s an interesting question, and one that has taxed philosophers over the centuries. But just as eminent thinkers have failed to come up with any real consensus, so Canadian writer Sheila Heti fails to deliver any definitive answers in this strange, erratic and occasionally compelling novel.

How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti

Harvill Secker, 320pp, £16.99

The book is billed as “a novel from life”, which is as good a description as any for this weird, genre-busting piece of writing. Heti has stated in interview that the book was pieced together from recorded conversations between her and her friends – and most of the characters in the book are clearly identifiable as real people, including Heti herself who is the first-person narrator.

The book is an attempt by Heti, or the fictionalised ‘Sheila’, to answer the question of the title. It is her fifth book, a backlist that includes novels, short stories and, most pertinently here, a book of ‘conversational philosophy’ called The Chairs are Where the People Go, co-written with Misha Glouberman, who also appears in this story.

I haven’t read that book but it sounds like it has plenty in common with How Should a Person Be?, which at times has the feel of a knockabout philosophical inquiry into the nature of existence, masquerading as a particularly hip and self-involved fictional (or not) narrative.

Specifically, Heti here is interested not necessarily in how to be, but how to be as a creative person or artist. What constitutes real or fake art? How can you gauge the authenticity of a work of art, or of an artist’s intent?

This is tackled in several strands. Firstly, the fictional Sheila is struggling with a play “about women” she’s been commissioned to write by a feminist theatre company. She doubts her own writing, but more importantly, she fears finishing the play because she can’t bear the thought of it being anything other than a perfect masterpiece .

In comparison, Sheila’s friend Margaux is more free to fail. Margaux, presumably based on Heti’s friend Margaux Williamson, is an acclaimed painter with a wonderful disregard for her own work, ideas and reputation, something of which Sheila is deeply envious.

Probably the most interesting thing that happens in this rather plotless, formless narrative is a competition between Margaux and another painter to create the ugliest painting imaginable.

Margaux relishes the challenge, while the other artist struggles with aesthetic and esoteric angst about the project, and the whole business neatly examines Heti’s central ideas about the authenticity or otherwise of creativity.

So far so good, but at times there is something almost unbearably precious and narcissistic about this book. Heti is the interviews editor at ultra-trendy The Believer magazine, so has serious literary hipster credentials, and she has blurbs on the back cover by Miranda July, Lena Dunham – creator of HBO series Girls – and James Wood in the New Yorker.

But for all that there are flashes of inspired writing here, there is also a lot of solipsistic navel-gazing and self-important artistic condescension. At times, How Should a Person Be? reads like a long Woody Allen monologue with the gags extracted.

Another problem is the lack of grounding within the narrative. Most of the ‘action’ takes place in Toronto, and yet I came away with precious little idea of that city. Interestingly, the two times when the narrative shifts elsewhere – a trip to an art show in Miami with Margaux and an ill-fated solo sojourn to New York – the prose really kicks into life, giving the reader something solid to latch onto.

And yet, for all the rather annoying whining, there is something occasionally magical going on here. An abusive on-off sexual relationship with a guy called Israel (which may be a metaphor) is extraordinarily well depicted – the extreme and brutal psychological bullying and submissive tendencies rendered with heart-breaking honesty.

And Sheila’s own struggles to write anything that she feels has any worth will echo with many authors, I’m sure. When she takes a job at a hairdresser to feel useful for a change, I was simultaneously cheering and despairing.

And she saves the best writing until the end. The second last chapter appears unconnected to anything else, an odd little parable about a gravedigger and a ditch-digger, but a beautiful depiction of the value and quiet dignity in doing a job worth doing and doing it to the best of one’s capabilities.

And then the final short chapter, which sees the ugliest painting competition being randomly decided by a squash match in which no-one seems to know the rules, had me re-evaluating everything that had come before. This is an undeniably strange and unique book.