Friday, August 29, 2014

How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti

Lately I've been at my wit's end with novels wherein the protagonist/narrator is a writer. I think it's such a boring, unimaginative choice; I know they say write what you know, but surely you can take a small leap outside of your own person for a moment? Well this book is at the extreme end of that scale; it's catalogued as fiction, but not only is the protagonist a writer, she IS the writer. AND she spends all her time with her friends who are actual people, notably the painter Margaux Williamson. And I'm pretty sure some of the transcribed conversations are actual conversations.

Some have described the book as part memoir, but I would have to say this is a pretty weak memoir. When I was younger (around 17 or 18) I bought a cheap dictaphone and would record conversations at parties, or ask people specific weird questions and record their answers. I should have kept the tapes and used them to write a book, because it probably would have been more interesting - certainly less juvenile and narcissistic -  than this one.

I can't describe the plot to you because there isn't one. Ostensibly it is the story of Sheila trying to find out how a person should be, but if she finds an answer I must have missed it. She spends the book having pointless conversations with her friends about art; not writing a play she has been commissioned to write; moping about; and sleeping with the slimiest man I can imagine. Oh and jetting off to Miami and New York, which I guess she can afford on a part-time hairdresser's salary? On the plus side, there is a lot of Toronto, and a very specific Toronto culture is reflected here.

I'm sure this book would appeal to some people; perhaps members of the culture mentioned above. For me, it is much too twee, to artsy, too navel-gazing, too much forced stream-of-consciousness drivel. It is quintessentially hipster. It makes me want to run back to Where We Have to Go to remind myself that there are writers of this generation who are making substantial and meaningful work. I don't think a book has to be heavy to mean something (Kirshner is delightfully light, in fact), but it can't be made of fluff. Heti's writing is good but the book is air, it is completely fluffy and forgettable. All I got from it that was good was a sense that Heti has great potential to write something wonderful, if she can get her head out of her ass. Perhaps her plays are better.

Two CN Towers out of five

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