Is it a memoir? A self-help book? A novel? All of the above? Or none of the above? Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? poses many questions, the hardest of which is for yours truly: how to attempt a review of a book that initially couldn’t find a publisher and then, when it did (after having an excerpt published in the magazine n+1), went on to become an international literary sensation, with reviewers like James Wood falling over themselves in their praise for Heti?
Our heroine, Sheila, a playwright, is recovering from a broken marriage and is struggling to write a play commissioned by a feminist Toronto organisation except that she doesn’t really know how to write about women because she doesn’t really know women. She encounters artist friends and hopes they can help her answer questions like, but not restricted to, how should a person be. Her friendship with Margaux forms much of the bulk of the story, a lot of which is conducted over email, and when they do become friends, Sheila records their conversations in a bid to learn about female relationships for she believes this will help her with her script.
Margaux isn’t the only relationship that Sheila has, though she is the most significant. We meet Israel, an artist with whom she has an affair (he is a better lover than an artist, she tells us) and through him she grows and explores herself, her limitations and how far she wants to go, sexually for example, but not just that. We also meet other friends Sholem and Misha, people at the salon where she works as a hairdresser and her analyst with whom she interprets her dreams. (Incidentally, her friends Margaux, Misha and Sholem are her real friends so the book is part real, part fiction, which makes it all the more interesting.)
While it is not a traditional novel with a linear narrative, it is not a distracting or an uneasy read nor is it a weird or a confusing one. The book has, however, been set in the form of a play, with acts as one would have chapters, so in effect you realise that you’re reading the play that Sheila was commissioned.
At the heart of this book is a tale of female relationships. Sheila did not have female friends and her relationship and crush on Margaux perplexes her at first because she hadn’t known female dynamics having only been obsessed with her husband thus far: “I supposed I didn’t trust [women]. What was a woman for? Two women was an alchemy I did not understand.” Margaux, however, is able to teach Sheila about boundaries when she shows her displeasure at her friend for buying the same dress as her, saying that she needs space, her own identity. This slight blip in the friendship causes some angst for Sheila but also allows her, even if by force, to look inward and find her own voice — who should a person be?
As she carries on with her friendship and develops more intense feelings for Margaux (not of the sexual variety), and perhaps less for Israel, Sheila learns more about herself and she reveals her insecurities more. She writes with a candour very few could so eloquently; at times it is hilarious, other times the reader will feel sadness, perhaps even pity, often empathy because one will almost always understand what is it is like to want to know how a person should be like. Because surely one has considered this — who am I really? — even if for a fleeting moment. Heti has attempted to answer it in the construct of a novel without it falling into the awful territory of navel-gazing or heavy-duty philosophy.
This book has garnered a lot of attention among female readers, and been compared to the television serial Girls though I didn’t quite understand the similarities unless it’s the incessant questioning of the main protagonist Hannah or the stream of consciousness which she veers off into. But I find Hannah vapid whereas Sheila is genuinely interested in her art and growth. With all the women’s cheerleading it has received it, I’d hate for it to be slotted as a ‘women’s only’ book. It should be seen as brave and insightful, and a clever way of presenting a novel.
How Should a Person Be?
By Sheila Heti
Harvill Secker, US