How Should a Person Be?, by Sheila Heti

Review published on March 3, 2013. Reviewed by Madeleine Beresford

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[product sku=”9781846557545″]Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? is not what you think it’s going to be. It’s surprisingly, strangely funny.

I laughed out loud twice in the first three chapters, so loudly that I suspect my neighbour could hear me through the wall. Which is appropriate, because this is a book about making public those moments that are usually personal – friendships, sexual relationships and how we feel about them, disturbing rape dreams and relentless self-questioning. It’s a very public half-fiction, half-non-fiction approach that suits its subject matter well.

The meandering journey of a young creative woman’s attempts to work out how she should ‘be’ as a person in today’s Toronto, it swings between knowing nods toward the reader to genuine reflection on the role of the artist and how we should ‘be’ people in today’s world. It is also a dialogue, between the narrator and herself, her friends Margaux, Sholem and Misha and her occasional sexual partner, Israel.

It has cult potential. There are several sublimely self-mocking moments shot through with such pinpoint accuracy as to be very quotable. The recurring phrase “He’s just another man who wants to teach me something,” used to dismiss male characters who were interesting to the main female characters, Margaux and Sheila, but who are quickly discarded, is a classic example. It works on two levels: firstly, because we’ve all met these men or seen them at work; secondly, it mocks the speaker, because it is a way of dismissing these men, objectifying and fitting them into a neat, disposable box. On both sides of the equation are people treating other people as homogenous ‘types’ (the young, admiring woman and the older, boorish man) rather than human individuals.

Heti’s narrator-Sheila is a compelling, relatable and flawed character, a model of the female genius she mentions in her very first chapter. And her genius is her gift for the new space into which she leaps. It would be belittling Heti’s book to describe it as simply a novel version of Girls, the hugely successful TV show by Lena Dunham, but it is difficult to avoid the link. What Heti’s novel is, and what its success across the pond has shown, is that this kind of young-woman-on-her-way-to-genius is a growing cultural phenomena. Like Girls, it is a bildungsroman for the female genius.

This is worthy of comment. In such a clever book, in a book that throws up so many questions about how to be a person in our society, about celebrity culture, drugs, art, the influence of pornography and the public nature of our private lives, that it is about a female narrator feels almost irrelevant. It would be a mistake to believe that it is. This is an interesting book because it legitimizes and interrogates the modern female creator.

The writing’s strength lies both in its accurate observation of human interaction in today’s world and in Heti’s unreliable semi-fictional narrator. The best example is how the two themes of the novel come together when Sheila mines tape recordings she has made of conversations with her friend Margaux to create a piece of art that replicates Margaux’s thoughts and feelings directly onto the page. Sheila is ‘making public’ Margaux, who has already stated she does not like to be recorded.

Following Margaux’s violent reaction to learning Sheila has recorded her in this way, Sheila dreams about a building in which women are gang-raped, tortured by large groups of men, skinned and murdered. The most brutal expressions of male violence against women are made equivalent to her ‘betrayal’ of her female friend in pursuit of her art. It’s not clear what the reader is meant to draw from this, or how they’re meant to interpret the link, but that Heti paints these connections into her character’s subconscious is fascinating. The two main themes – how to build the self in such a public modern world and how to be a female genius – come together in this disturbing image.

This is a complex, multi-layered novel, and it is very rewarding. But most of all, it is an experiment – in a new novelistic form, in how to be a female genius, and, most obviously, in how to exist. I suspect it may be one of the forerunners in a new genre of writing about this generation.

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