Sunday, January 13, 2013

Novel experience

This April, HBO aired a new show, Girls, which is about four 20-something New Yorkers who are dealing with post-collegiate despair. More than just being the Sex and the City for Generation Y, Girls transcends those clichés thanks to its creator Lena Dunham, whose strong characters, engaging shifting relationships and cracking one-liners keep the show afloat.

Where Girls totters is in Ms Dunham’s solipsism that doesn’t lead anywhere. That gap, thankfully, is filled by the Canadian author Sheila Heti through her second novel, How Should A Person Be? Based mostly in Toronto, the novel is about a playwright, Sheila, who is unable to write her “feminist” play and keeps finding solace in her small bunch of friends. The most important of these friends is Margaux, a free spirit and a gifted painter who thinks “painting is dead”. There’s Israel, a bit like Adam from Girls, someone Sheila has a kinda-sorta relationship with. HSAPB joins the recent spate of stream-of-consciousness novels like Teju Cole’s Open City and Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station.

The premise does sound like an over-privileged white person’s clamorous thoughts on popular culture and relationships. Yes, no character bothers where their next meal is coming from; all are busy trying to make sense of the highbrow world. Paradoxically, that’s the real strength of HSAPB. In an interview with The Times in 2000, the recently deceased historian Jacques Barzun said, “By the time I was 9, I had the conviction that everybody in the world was an artist except plumbers or people who delivered groceries.”

This is exactly the sort of milieu Sheila and her coterie inhabit: Margaux and her painter friend indulge in an “ugly painting competition”; Sheila thinks a tape recorder would help her shatter her writer’s block; people take off to Africa to save the world; lots of art gallery openings and usually unnecessary house parties are part of the novel’s décor; there’s going to a clown class, reading The New York Times in panties and so on.
And there’s some self-indulgence thrown in to beautiful effect: “I am writing a play that is going to save the world. If it saves only three people, I will not be happy. If with this the oil crisis is merely averted and our standard of living maintains itself at its current novel, I will weep into my oatmeal.” Here’s one more: “The other night I learned that Nietzsche wrote on a typewriter. It is unbelievable to me, and I no longer feel that his philosophy has the same validity or aura of truth that it formerly did … Goddammit, the man had no more connection to the truth than a stenographer!” If this doesn’t scream “a serious writing talent to reckon with”, I don’t know what will.

Margaux and Sheila’s relationship form the book’s emotional core (“I have never had a kinder friend … or a more difficult one”) and their conversations – which are captured in various formats – are solid gold. And this relationship is really where this subtle, sinuous and very funny novel draws all its confidence, hesitancy, self-awareness and poignancy from. Sheila is overly dependent on Margaux for her artistic career to chart a glorious path, “If I had known, when I was a baby, that in America there was a baby who was throwing up her hands and saying, first words out of her mouth, Who cares? and that one day she’d be my best friend, I would have relaxed for the next twenty-three years, not a single care in the world.” If one has to triangulate HSAPB, the third dimension will be Israel, who walks in and out of the novel like a Navy SEAL.

The novel’s biggest virtue is Sheila’s messy complexity that Ms Heti never stops short of revelling in. Sheila imagines, and also has a lot of, degrading sex (a chapter called “Interlude for Sex” would make Fifty Shades of Grey look like a modern-day version of Gone With The Wind). She is constantly undermined or ignored by Israel, but she considers herself a feminist. The zeitgeist-y conceit of the novel seems to be this sentence that appears somewhere near the novel’s end: “Who am I to hold myself aloof from the terrible fates of the world? My life need be no less ugly than the rest.”

HSAPB is a broadly fictional memoir of Ms Heti. Most of the primary characters are her friends from real life (that’s why the subtitle: “A Novel From Life”). One gets the feeling that in real life, too, Sheila is trying to come to terms with her protagonist’s dilemma: who exactly is a woman genius? Someone who achieves artistic greatness while still fulfilling family responsibilities, as a woman is expected to? Or should it be the other way around, where she cocks a snook at raising kids and only concentrates on her work, like most men do? The narrative styles that Ms Heti employs – Q&A (she is the interviews editor at The Believer magazine), email exchanges, conventional narrative, confessional, self-help manual format – make the novel thoroughly engaging and ridiculously original. This is that rare novel: an airport read, a post-coital read, a beach read, a binge read. While trying hard not to sound like Virginia Woolf, I would wager that this is how a novel should be.

Sheila Heti
Henry Holt
306 pages; $15


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