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How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti

How Should a Person Be?

by Sheila Heti

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2902438,756 (3.09)18
Recently added byabbeyhar, AnaCarvalho, irian117, diana.n, Waynex, private library, bkepp14, outlandishlit
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    Women in Clothes by Sheila Heti (sduff222)
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    You Learn by Living by Eleanor Roosevelt (tandah)
    tandah: Ironic parallels - I found them because I was coincidentally reading them at the same time.

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Showing 1-5 of 21 (next | show all)
Beautiful and true. ( )
  outlandishlit | Jun 9, 2014 |
Difficult to see this as a novel, when it distinctly reads as a memoir. Whilst her introspection can at times feel like a swamp of self-centredness - the revelations are often quite profound. ( )
  tandah | Jan 8, 2014 |
I read the British version, published 2013 & shorter than the original.
Even a couple of weeks after finishing this I still can’t rate it, my responses were so opposed.
- At times this was the most annoying book I’ve read this year, yet by the end I’d warmed to the author so much I would have quite liked to talk to her.
- If this sort of thing is a significant trend in the current avant garde, I despair of its insulated triviality. Yet I can also sort of see where she’s coming from and I found it quite interesting.

How Should a Person Be? was first published in 2010 by a small press in Canada – it’s Heti’s third book but her first to gain much attention. Which attention in America (it helped that she’s also the interviews editor of The Believer, McSweeney’s “let’s only write about books we can be nice about” mag) led to its being published there in 2012 and now this year in the UK. It blurs memoir & fiction in a way that Alt-Lit is very fond of (characters share the names of the author and her friends and are closely based on them) and it uses a similar style, though one which is more faux-naïve than flat and banal.

Its advertised themes include personal identity and feminism, though I side with those who think it’s more about narcissism and over-cocooned creative cultures.

It seemed important to realise that Heti wasn’t writing it all about herself now - that most of it happened in her twenties. Many of her central questions, like the one in the title, have been described by others as teenage … probably a lot of people did deal with them then. I recognised a lot of it from my twenties, being honest with myself, once I took a deep breath and stopped being exasperated assuming that she should also have got a reasonable amount of this out of the way by her mid-thirties, also realising what that thought said about me. (It’s just like with Alt-lit, that watching someone ponder their own narcissism makes this reader do the same, and whilst the writers generally intend that, I don’t much like that suffocating little mirrored narcissibubble and find it airier and a better view when thinking about other things. So forgive me if I don’t spell out every point of self-awareness and recursion which occurred whilst reading this book. There were plenty.)

“How should a person be?” has the potential to be a weighty moral question. But it’s not really treated as such here. It isn’t essentially about ethics, it’s about image and self-presentation and how to be someone who effortlessly produces satisfactory versions of those, how to fit in with or carve out your own niche among “people like you”, or people whom you aspire to be like - or rather your idea of them as generated by media, arts and how you view your friends. It’s a thought-bubble fragile-self world where this particular idea of “should” rules, rather than instincts of what you want to do and what you feel, and what you may think is morally right. And because Sheila (I will use Sheila to refer to the character, and Heti for the author) only associates with other young able-bodied middle-class creative white people - in a milieu deliberately made to resemble reality TV (the LRB review cites The Hills as one of Heti's influences) - there isn’t much push towards these other ideas, though they do appear at times.

Heti has described the book as part memoir, part fiction, but also part self-help book. It’s described as an anti-novel but Sheila’s various realisations about herself – which make up the implied self-help part – as well as events in her close friendship with Margaux do create a plot structure. Her therapist's (has to take unskilled job to get by / keeps Jungian analyst on speed dial... I can't quite figure out her budget, but anyway) advice about Peter Pan syndrome and and the way out of it being to achieve and get things done is very American and capitalistic. Letting go of the ideas about being "great" and "superior" don't seem to be anywhere, which I thought was a shame - both politically and socially. The later narrative, I was happy (and patronising) to see, did include ideas about becoming more aware of how she felt and acting on the basis of them rather than being so ruled by her ideas of how she might appear most interesting to others, or “how to be” in order to be a Great Writer etc. It was a very nice way of illustrating natural "self-help" through reflection and the process of living rather than parroting jargon and rules.

That is good, but what was almost missing was a moral sense, or even much thought about, things outside her own #firstworldproblems bubble, which was typified by the very detached use of the category “poor people”. Sheila does start seeing them as individuals, just as two male friends of hers who run a theatre go to Africa on holiday (which they basically describe as a holiday from narcissism) and experience revelations about the humanity and needs of others different from themselves. But the friends’ ideas about this recede because they can’t understand how to integrate them into their own lives without walking out on everything. Er, hello, ever heard of community theatre work?

As far as the feminism is concerned Sheila is a thoroughly liberated free modern woman with very few obligations who, in an ideological sense, still seems to think she has to fight certain old battles. Most of the action takes place during a time when she’s trying to complete a play for a feminist theatre group which she’s been working on for ages, around the time of her divorce. At the start she is somewhat preoccupied with ideas about how to be a Great Woman, that there aren’t too many examples to draw on for inspiration yet (really??? This lack-of-great-women-in-literature angst does seem to be an American thing: we've plenty in Britain now and in the past 200 yrs. Anyway, I’m of the view that it doesn’t matter who she takes inspiration from, she’s a woman herself, and it’s more egalitarian to reject these separatist ideas and gender-based designations.) Yet she doesn’t write about feminist ideology and history even when it would have been interesting and appropriate – e.g. when she takes a job in a hairdresser’s to support herself whilst writing the play. Evidently she’s not a dungarees and no make up type, but more ideas would have been nice: I was reading this to hear about what she thinks, not just to rattle around in my own head considering my own opinions. She spends a lot of time with her friend Margaux whom she tries to imitate to an extent, having not really had any close female friends before her. (It would have been more interesting if she’d gone into whybut it’s part of the simplicity of the writing style that she ignores that sort of background material.) Sheila basically seems to be a sex positive feminist – most of the best writing in this book is in the chapter “Interlude for Fucking” which even if you’re not into all the kinks she is (e.g. I really don’t like the mean talk / ‘verbal abuse’ stuff) gives a fantastic sense of what it is to crave someone completely, written in a really fresh way. And one of the most interesting parts of her increasing self-definition, especially in the light of books that have been published between 2010 and the present, is how she starts to make more conscious and critical decisions about sexual submission. (Though no-one can blame Heti for not foregrounding 50 Shades of Grey etc, this book has inadvertently become part of the current media over-representation of female kink as only being about rather un-subversive young attractive straight submissives as criticised eloquently by Laurie Penny in this blog post.)

The deliberately simplistic style of writing in the book is something I can see two ways. It’s an honest and immediate representation of thoughts and feelings which I appreciate in a person-centred, Carl Rogers-influenced sort of way. But it’s also frustrating on a personal level – I just want to know more of what she thinks about certain situations – and on an intellectual level. Works like this and Marie Calloway’s what purpose did i serve in your life are an implied subversion of “male” intellectualising but I think that does a real disservice to interesting and useful forms of thought and expression that really need not be equated with any gender – and perhaps they even self-sabotagingly increase that sense of genderedness . Regardless of gender debates, they are also arguably a disservice to the writer whose ideas receive less recognition because they are never expressly spelt out in the work. (Even, say, in one or two chapters that make them clear.) On some level, I have to admit that similar to Lydia Kiesling in her brilliant review of Tao Lin's Taipei in Ihe Millions, I just aesthetically don’t like this approach that much.

And the same goes for the prolonged explorations of narcissism in these works and Alt-Lit generally. There’s only so much “yeah, I’ve thought that too” one can do before it gets old (and of course not everybody has thought that). “Feminist narcissism” (a minor buzz-phrase around mostly American writers like this) is all very well in terms of having enough ego to put your work out there, but even to other somewhat narcissistic middle-class women (like me) narcissism as the main substance of the art itself is just a bit boring after a while. There are so many other interesting things in the world, and even in one egotistical person’s head and life, to think and care about than that particular set of ideas. David Foster Wallace’s ‘Good Old Neon’ was a story about narcissism but it took a wider context, albeit a negative one. So perhaps what Heti is saying - in contrast to DFW's conclusion - is that narcissism in a non-aggressive form especially, isn't exactly the worst thing in the world and isn't necessarily worth quite so much shame. (The shame that's the flipside to the egotism, and the shamefulness with which the narcissist may be regarded by others - shame which Heti tries to exorcise for herself by writing a "deliberately ugly" book including potentially embarrassing material. For her it looks like this therapeutic risk-taking turned out brilliantly, as she's been acclaimed for it.)She's saying it's not hopeless, you can improve bits and pieces and it's still okay to be yourself. "Benignly narcissistic white middle class artists are people too," perhaps. Even if billions don't care either way.

I’ve spent 1400 words mostly criticising this book, yet, even if Sheila’s social circle was a bit stifling, I quite liked her in the end and when I think back on the later part of the book in a non-specific sense, I feel it was an interesting experience and one I liked. How strange.

Read 10-12 June 2013.
  antonomasia | Aug 15, 2013 |
Hoooooo boy did I kind of hate this one. In fact, my anger towards the book has only grown in the time since finishing it. It's a pretentious art-school format "ooh, look at the different ways I can write a novel!" attempt to pose meaningfully in the direction of "self-discovery". Listen, if you're a twentysomething and you want self-discovery that isn't your own, go watch "Girls". Go read Fitzgerald. Go read attempt to discover your own answer to the question - but don't bore us with the inanities of your search. Nobody gives a whit.

This is just one of those books that irritated me up one side and down the other. I rage on about this, somewhat at length, at RB: http://wp.me/pGVzJ-Fb
My apologies for the heatedness... but sometimes, man, it just happens. ( )
  drewsof | Jul 9, 2013 |
The basics: This novel features a narrator named Sheila Heti. Heti uses some actual conversations with friends in this genre-defying "novel of life." The character Sheila seeks answers to the titular question "how should a person be?"

My thoughts: Going into How Should a Person Be?, I was excited. I have a fondness for experimental novels. I may not always love them, but I do enjoy exploring new and creative approaches to literature. As I read, I was as enraptured trying to figure out what Heti (the author) was doing as what Sheila (the character) was saying. There's a sense of late night, wine-fueled conversations about deep things in the early pages of this novel. That will likely either intrigue you or have you running for the hills, but I couldn't get enough of it. As Sheila struggles with her identity, to some extent, but really herself, that identity is caught up in her work:
"I had spent so much time trying to make the play I was writing--and my life, my self--into an object of beauty. It was exhausting and all that I knew."
This notion particularly stands out to me in this novel, because How Should a Person Be? is an exercise in the artist being part of the work. Where do the writer and character merge and overlap? This exploration was riveting, but soon it became clear there wasn't enough plot. The setup was lovely, but the book's second half felt more forced and stilted. I longed for more conversations and scenes like this one from earlier in the novel:
"One good thing about being a woman is we haven't too many examples yet of what a genius looks like. It could be me. There is no ideal model for how my mind should be. For the men, it's pretty clear. That's the reason you see them trying to talk themselves up all the time.
Favorite passage: "I will give up pot because it makes me paranoid. But I will stay close to God because he makes me paranoid."

The verdict: While I adore Heti's writing and love the idea of this book, the second half isn't as strong as the first half. As a whole, it's a disappointment, but it's certainly a book I'm glad I read. The moments of brilliance are definitely worth sifting through the rest. ( )
  nomadreader | Jun 20, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 21 (next | show all)
I do not think this novel knows everything, but Sheila Heti does know something about how many of us, right now, experience the world, and she has gotten that knowledge down on paper, in a form unlike any other novel I can think of.
The most engaging part of the novel is the platonic, intellectual love affair between Sheila and Margaux and their respective learning and negotiation of how a person should be - and the problems that manifest when a person "is" or "does be." In one such dip in the friendship, Sheila pings off to a creepy male lover, Israel, who sends her instructions for solo public sex performances according to his lobotomized porn menu. Heti's settling of Sheila's ongoing trials with Israel and the place in which she finds herself - between sex positivism and a pervert's manipulations - provides splendid writing and a striking inversion of assumptions about sexual power and where it lies (and how it can be reclaimed).If such a novel sounds like hard work, it's not. If anything, it's not hard enough work. When you go to this extent to invoke and provoke with form, we want challenging content too, so Heti could have gone much further.Mercifully, in such constrained publishing times, what Heti's brain and fingertips offer are expanded possibilities for what the novel can be and can become. She's on her way to something original and bolder. In the meantime, How Should a Person Be? makes curious and combative company.
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for Margaux
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We were having brunch together.
There are certain people who do not feel like they were raised by wolves, and they are the ones who make the world tick. They are the ones who keep everything functioning so the rest of us can worry about what sort of person we should be. I have read all the books, and I know what they say: You—but better in every way! And yet there are so may ways of being better, and these ways can contradict each other!
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From the internationally acclaimed author of The Middle Stories and Ticknor comes a bold interrogation of the notion of a beautiful life. How Should a Person Be? is a novel of many identities: it is an autobiography of the mind, a postmodern self-help book, and a portrait of the artist as a young woman — of two such artists, in fact. Thrown into a quandary of self-doubt by an early divorce, “Sheila” finds herself questioning how a person should be in the world. Inspired by her friend — the painter Margaux Williamson — and her untortured ability to live and create, Sheila casts Margaux as material, embarking on a series of recordings in which nothing is too personal, too ugly, or too banal to be turned into fiction. When this investigation becomes too difficult, Sheila escapes into a delirious love affair with a male painter and encounters even more painful truths about herself and her desires. Searching, uncompromising, and yet mordantly funny, How Should a Person Be? is a fictional notebook from the psychic underground of Canada’s most fiercely original writer.
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Facing a creative dilemma after a failed marriage, Sheila gathers inspiration from a depraved and free-spirited artist who becomes her lover, in a tale based on incidents from the author's true life.

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