Sheila Heti: Representing the feminist narrative with renewed resonance and verve
How Should A Person Be? is a question that has no definitive answer, varying from one individual to the next. The only absolute is that one should always be oneself because “everyone else is already taken,” as Oscar Wilde observed some years ago. This is something Sheila Heti explores during the course of her book, which she spends trying to answer this pressing query. Written in semi fictionalised free-form, How Should A Person Be? comprises dialogue, monologue, meditation, reverie and playwriting elements into a loosely assembled whole. A substantial part of it is based on Heti’s conversations with several of her friends, most notably an artist by the name of Margaux who has very admirably “never quit anything”. The narrator – also named Sheila – uses her personal experiences as a framework to explore modernist themes such as freedom, creativity, language, gender and the underlying impetuses that drive us. Heti’s work is defined by a very discernible feminist ethos both in her creative endeavours – a play about women – and her quest for self-actualisation by means of interaction with Margaux. “I felt like I was the tin man, the lion, and the scarecrow in one,” Sheila tells us thinking of her life before meeting Margaux, “I could not feel my heart, I had no courage, I could not use my brain.” This sentiment is later echoed in Sheila’s perception of her new friend, who in turn becomes the sum of all her aspirations. “I admired her courage, her heart, and her brain,” Sheila says, “I envied the freedom I suspected in her, and wanted to know it better, and become the same way too.”
The pair’s friendship begins in earnest when Sheila decides that Margaux may be the inspiration she needs to finish her play despite having reservations about female friendships. “Two women as alchemy I did not understand,” Sheila says contemplating the subject, “…ever since I was a teenager, I had been drawn to men exclusively, and they drew themselves to me – as lovers, as friends. They pursued me. It was simple. It was men I enjoyed talking to at parties, and whose opinions I was interested in hearing. It was men I wanted to grow close to and be influence by.” Somewhere mid-way through the book, after a dozen conversations with Margaux and a trip to Miami, Sheila realises that her sense of self-realisation has always been defined by men, especially men who “wanted to teach her something”. Among these is her new lover Israel, who wants to teach Sheila how to suck cock and fuck with complete abandon. And at one point Sheila finds herself completely immersed in the distraction – “the interlude” – which only drives her further away from her goal of self-discovery, her fledgling relationship with Margaux and most importantly from her playwriting. “I don’t know why all of you just sit in libraries when you could be fucked by Israel,” she says thinking about her new lover, “I don’t see why you’re getting so excited about, snuggling in with your book, you little bookworms, when instead Israel could be stuffing his cock into you and teaching you a lesson.” In the end, however, it is Sheila that teaches us a lesson by manumitting herself from the need to conform to what someone else thinks a person should be.
In many ways How Should A Person Be? is a nubile (twice removed and reworked) extension of Simone de Beauvoir’s assertion that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. In Sheila’s case this realisation is reached when she ceases to see herself through the eyes of the men in her life – past and present. Yet despite her attachment to the feminine, Sheila promotes an androgynous ideal of self-formation relaying her experiences through a traditionally male model of storytelling, belonging to the coming of age genre. Yet there are moments, when feeling lost, nullified and caught up in the search for love, creative freedom and oneself – all very unisex goals – Sheila speaks with a non-gender-specific ineligibility. “We are worse off than we were at the beginning,” she says thinking on humanity, “but this could have been predicted from our starting point. In the beginning the gods gave us liberty; in the end, we discovered cheating. Instead of developing the capacities within, we took two roads: the delusion and oblivion of drugs – which didn’t start off as cheating, but as access to the sublime…One is a reproduction of the human type – one sleeps like other humans, eats like other humans, loves like other humans, and is born and dies like other humans. We are gestures, but we less resemble an original painting than one unit of a hundred thousand copies of a book being sold. Now the gestures we chose are revealed as cheating. Instead of being, one appears to be.” This form of scepticism is very closely aligned with Immanuel Kant’s idea of transcendental reality, which Heti ruminates on briefly without much gravitas or depth.
There are several other moments in the book when one can very clearly see her academic credentials in philosophy, particularly when Sheila ponders subconscious impulses, the meaning of life and relationships. “…Love, which can’t be helped, slips into the death drive,” she says, “The death drive seeks comfort and knowledge of the future. It wants the final answer and is afraid of life…It hopes to drive you off your course like a car plunging into the center of the earth. It strives for love, annihilation, comfort and death. Now the future is clear! it cries. It wants to drag you down…It is death coming, masquerading as life, and blessed is the man who can see the death drive in the woman. Blessed is he who leaves in the morning without any promise of love. And blessed is the woman who can answer for herself, What about living? What is it about living that you want?” This is a question which Heti’s fictional self finds even harder to answer than her original probe, as she vacillates between wanting everything (fame, veneration, personal and professional fulfillment) and nothing at all. Speaking about how Sheila’s yearning for celebrity materialised Heti said she was trying to identify and exaggerate similarities between herself and “those girls like Lindsay Lohan who were in the tabloids”. This experimental projection adds a somewhat contrived dimension to the book and leads to several very banal exchanges between Sheila and Margaux, most notable of which is over a dress. How Should A Person Be? could have done without it but Heti says she has always associated writing with performance and “if you understand yourself to be in relation to the people around you, and to the world around you, the audience for the performance expands”. An interesting point, but the performance in How Should A Person Be? expands a little too liberally, detracting from rather than enhancing the work.
Equally there are some very shrewd and interesting observations in the book like, for example, when speaking about modern day recreational pursuits Sheila says “the rule is: drink as much as you can afford to drink. We all, anyway, work better when we are drunk, or wake up the next morning, hungover. In either case, we lack the capacity to second-guess ourselves,” or when thinking about one of her past relationships she concludes that sadly “we don’t know the effects we have on each other, but we have them” or notes that “women apologise too much” and needlessly. Women and their relationships with men as well as each other is Heti’s strong point. Speaking about the subject in an interview she recently said: “I always thought marriage hurt female genius more than it helped.” This is a sentiment Sheila reiterates several times in the book, after leaving her husband, liberating herself from Israel and trying to find the courage to construct an identity on her own terms. How Should A Person Be? is a novel from life which as the by-line suggests attempts to capture the immediacy of experiences and thoughts as they unfold. And in a way Heti succeeds by employing a number of genres to convey the “benevolent operation of destiny in every moment” and a sense “of the inevitability of things” as they materialise, even if she sometimes does so at the cost of her prose which veers from inspired to jejune. How Should A Person Be? is Heti’s second book but a first in a much greater sense of the feminist narrative defined here by renewed resonance and verve.
Publisher: Harvill Secker
Publication Date: January 2013
Hardback: 320 pages