When a review copy of How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti (Henry Holt) landed on my desk in May, I had no idea what I was holding would become one of the most talked-about books of the summer.
I suppose it was inevitable, given the attention (and controversy) that HBO’s Girls received. How Should a Person Be? treads the same thematic territory: youth, female friendship, explicit sex, and what it means to be an artist. Unlike Girls, however, Heti’s book strives for philosophical depths rarely plumbed by television. Occasionally, it even finds them.
How Should a Person Be? is described as “a novel from life,” although it could equally be called a fictionalized memoir. The book’s protagonist is a Toronto writer named Sheila Heti whose best friend is a painter named Margaux Williamson (who is, in real life, a painter and one of the author Heti’s best friends).
The semi-fictional Heti meets Williamson right as her marriage is falling apart, and they quickly fall into that intense female friendship one is unlikely to find outside of one’s 20s. They stay up all night getting drunk and doing cocaine and talking about the meaning of art and of life. Heti begins tape-recording their conversations, which eventually leads to the friends having a fight. Williamson paints a disturbing painting; Heti runs away to New York but returns after a detour to Atlantic City; the pair finally makes up.
That, essentially, is the plot of the book. You’d be forgiven for thinking that it all sounds slightly tedious, because it is. Heti isn’t interested in telling a good story, she’s interested in herself and her friends and how clever they all are. And Heti is nothing if not clever.
Much has been made of the formal structure of How Should a Person Be? The book is divided into five acts, and often lapses into stretches of dialogue that read as a play might, although they also serve the function of being the ostensible transcriptions Heti has made of the recordings of her conversations with her friends. The character Heti spends the entire book struggling to finish a play that she has been commissioned to write; presumably, the resulting text one is holding in one’s hand is what she actually came up with.
It’s all very postmodern and self-aware. Heti knows exactly how narcissistic her endeavor is, which is partially her point. The very act of creating art—her writing, Williamson’s paintings—requires a certain amount of narcissism, a belief in one’s self that what one is doing is worthwhile in the face of a mammoth and uncaring world. But then there are passages like the following, which moves beyond self-awareness to self-absorption:
“SHEILA: I’m so happy with how we were making everyone jealous with how happy we were in the pool!
“MARGAUX: What? That’s crazy! In my mind, we were making ourselves happy. I had no idea anyone was looking at us.
“SHEILA: All I’m saying is: if there’s a pool and people are in the pool and you’re not in the pool, you want to be in the pool just like those people in the pool. It’s just a fact of nature.”
There’s far too much of a similar smug self-satisfaction throughout the book. Too many passages in too many chapters read like journal entries in which Heti wrote something clever down. There’s a difference between a postmodern non-narrative structure and inserting random statements that reinforce just how interesting and fascinating one is. It’s like watching a movie with Zooey Deschanel—she’s beautiful, but eventually she’s just too precious.
Heti does successfully capture that giddy freedom of one’s 20s, and she raises some interesting questions about what it means to be an artist and be a woman at the same time. Still, the book never really coalesces.
Near the beginning of How Should a Person Be?, Heti writes, “I look at all the people who are alive today and think, These are my contemporaries! These are my f--king contemporaries! We live in an age of some really great blow-job artists. Every era has its art form. The nineteenth century, I know, was tops for the novel.”
As I read the book, I kept coming back to this phrase, for it seems that, despite all its pretensions, Heti’s novel is in a lot of ways nothing more than a well executed sex act: It’s pleasurable, but messy. A bit repetitive, and not overly serious. It tries to be shocking, but in the end, it’s nothing that hasn’t been done before.