Saturday, March 30, 2013

How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti

An extremely self conscious woman sets about being an artist and living her life.

That description sounds like the last novel in the world I would want to read, but the book was getting such good press I got a copy.  Entranced, I read it in almost one sitting, even though the pacing bogged down at the end.   The stakes seemed exceptionally low at first (pages and pages concerning two friends talking about dresses?) but then suddenly the stakes got extremely high (the struggle to prevent your soul from being extinguished by life, history, memories.) Sheila, the narrator and main character, procrastinates on her stated mission to be an artistic genius; she gets a sensual pleasure from her well suited menial job at a beauty salon; she has abasing exciting sex with a jerk; she meets a compatible new friend Margaux; she feels guilty about not feeling that guilty about ending her marriage. During the course of the novel, Sheila bounces between the deep feelings engendered by two characters -- her good angel, Margaux, and her evil angel, her sexual obsession Israel. 

The prose is funny with deadpan airhead sentences. Heti uses a hodgepodge of styles - traditional scene writing, emails, and theater, to illustrate Sheila’s journey. Is this even a novel? It eschews the David Copperfield stuff like scene setting and description. There is a plot, but it feels inconsequential, obviously silly, involving an ugly painting contest. The contest allows at least the scenes to have some sort of processional order (though not really a tension.) The tension comes from the philosophical questions. How should a person be?

Early on, Sheila relates how a high school lover puts a truly debasing curse on her. At the end of the novel, both her dream of artistic fulfillment comes true, as well as the debasing curse. What she learns is that the fulfillment of the curse wasn’t all that bad. In fact, it was liberating. Perhaps there isn’t an answer to the question, How should a person be? Perhaps the answer is in the contemplation.

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