A twenty-something Toronto artist flounders creatively after a failed marriage in Sheila Heti’s anxious experimental novel How Should a Person Be? The milieu is the kind of familiar that breeds contempt: the privileged creative class of a generation seen in television shows like Girls or movies like Frances Ha. But Heti’s disarmingly stark prose transcends potentially unsympathetic individuals to get at the universal human unease asked in the novel’s title.
How *should* a person be? Heti’s book, touted as “a novel from life,” has a protagonist named Sheila, and offers what I imagine is some disguised version of the author as she navigates personal minefields of sex, religion, and art. This makes the book sound much more ponderous than it is. The title of the book is a question that the author never answers. Heti’s asks challenging questions about life and existence, and clearly doesn’t have the answers. This uncertainty fuels the acture sense of anxiety that the book provokes, and it also gives the book its endearing power
As the novel begins, Sheila and her friends come up with an Ugliest Painting Competition among themselves, a distraction while Sheila struggles with a feminist play that has been commissioned but that she is unable to finish. There are plenty of warning signs in that summary that may make the intrepid reader flee from layers of generational self-absorption. But Sheila’s inner monologue consistently questions her own thoughts and motivations, the validity and authenticity of her thoughts and desires as well as those of her peers. This is the voice not of a generation in love with the sound of their voice, but a generation overwhelmed with the world’s voices that she cannot find her own.
This sets in motion the kind of generational restlessness and aimlessness seen in any number of hipster comedies and coming of age movies, but what keeps the emotional navel gazing from becoming artistic navel gazing is Heti’s master of tone. Her early short stories were anxious fables written in a kind of deadpan wonder, achieving a verbal power through restraint. The author maintained that introspective tone with her novel Ticknor. The breakthrough in her latest novel, now available in paperback, is that she takes that personal, inward-looking tone to capture the real world. The result is unsettling.
Heti’s verbal restraint keeps How Should a Person Be? both grounded and off-balance. When she lets that restraint go, as in a tour de force sexual fantasia about an abusive lover named Israel, its power is all the more startling.
The book is finally political, as Sheila struggles with her Judaism. If the symbolism of the cock of Israel is not enough, Sheila later has a heated discussion with a rabbi. How Should a Person Be? occasionally wears its symbols on its sleeves, but it’s not dull or thoughtless. A critic described Kashuo Ishiguro’s novel The Unconsoled as a 500-page anxiety dream, which sold me on that excellent book. Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? is a 300-page treatise on the anxiety of being awake. If that description speaks to you, try it.