Relationships between identity, creativity, and friendship are explored in a humorous and intelligent – if somewhat monochromatic – manner in Toronto-based Sheila Heti’s new novel. Heti, who previously produced a novel (2005’s Ticknor) and short story collection (2002’s The Middle Stories), here fictionalizes actual events and conversations from a year in the lives of her friends to forge a journey of self-discovery for her protagonist – Sheila Heti.
In the book, Sheila divorces a husband and forms a fast, intense friendship with a painter named Margaux. Female companionship is a strange experiment for both women, who heretofore related predominantly to men, despite being frustrated by their paternalism. The women’s days are spent talking about art, while Sheila avoids working on a play commissioned by a feminist theatre company. Consumed with a desire to foment beauty despite her own stalled creative output, Sheila works in a hair salon and punishes herself by taking a sadistic lover named Israel. Her relationship with Margaux ruptures when Sheila tries to use their taped conversations as source material without her friend’s prior consent.
Cleverness abounds in How Should a Person Be? Deeply concerned with the intersection of art and celebrity, the book is reverent about painters while lampooning performance artists, the commercial art world, wealthy patrons, and even the profession of clowning. This is a book of ideas packed with overt symbolism and multiple dream sequences (one of which necessitates a late-night international Skype call to Sheila’s Jungian analyst). Amidst that heady mix, Heti’s discussions of Jewish identity and sexual masochism are particularly interesting.
Although breezy and readable, the prose suffers from a consistent tone of detachment, making it difficult to engage with the simple, linear plot, and hard to relate to the nakedly ambitious but painfully insecure Sheila or the accomplished and prolific Margaux. Despite their origins in the real world, the fictional people and predicaments that populate How Should a Person Be? feel like objects in service of an intellectual thesis, lacking sufficient richness and complexity of their own.
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“Funny…odd, original, and nearly unclassifiable…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.” – David Haglund, The New York Times Book Review
“[Sheila Heti] has an appealing restlessness, a curiosity about new forms, and an attractive freedom from pretentiousness or cant…How Should a Person Be? offers a vital and funny picture of the excitements and longueurs of trying to be a young creator in a free, late-capitalist Western City…This talented writer may well have identified a central dialectic of twenty-first-century postmodern being.” – James Wood, The New Yorker
“Brutally honest and stylistically inventive, cerebral and sexy, this ‘novel from life’ employs a grab bag of literary forms and narrative styles on its search for the truth…meandering and entertaining exploration of the big questions, rousting aesthetic, moral, religious and ethical concerns most novels wouldn’t touch.” –Michael David Lukas, San Francisco Chronicle
“A perfect summer read. It is also one of the bravest, strangest, most original novels I’ve read this year…We care about Sheila’s plight, but the souls in limbo here are, ultimately, our own. With so many references to the world outside of the fiction, this novel demands to know: Can art inform our lives, and tell us how to be?” – Christopher Boucher, The Boston Globe
"Original...hilarious...Part confessional, part play, part novel, and more—it’s one wild ride...Think HBO’S Girls in book form." —Marie Claire
“How Should a Person Be? teeters between youthful pretension and irony in ways that are as old as Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. . . but Ms. Heti manages to give Sheila’s struggle a contemporary and particular feel. . . How Should a Person Be? reveals a talented young voice of a still inchoate generation.” – Kay Hymowitz, The Wall Street Journal
“I read this eccentric book in one sitting, amazed, disgusted, intrigued, sometimes titillated I’ll admit to that, but always in awe of this new Toronto writer who seems to be channeling Henry Miller one minute and Joan Didion the next. Heti’s book is pretty ugly fiction, accent on the pretty.”– Alan Cheuse, NPR’s All Things Considered
“Heti’s book is so boldly original, each sentence so gorgeously rendered, that the distinction between exceptional novel and exceptional memoir seems irrelevant.”– Michael Schaub, NPR Books
“Heti knows what she’s doing—much of the pleasure of How Should a Person Be? comes from watching her control the norms she’s subverting.” –Michelle Dean, Slate
"[A] really amazing metafiction-meets-nonfiction novel that’s so funny and strange. It has a lot of the same concerns that Girls does.” —Lena Dunham, Entertainment Weekly's "Stars Own Must List"
"[A] breakthrough novel...Just as Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps (written at the same age) was an explosive and thrilling rejoinder to the serious, male coming-of-age saga exemplified during her era by Sartre’s The Age of Reason, Heti’s book exuberantly appropriates the same, otherwise tired genre to encompass female experience. How Should a Person Be?’s deft, picaresque construction, which lightly-but-devastatingly parodies the mores of Toronto’s art scene, has more in common with Don Quixote than with Lena Dunham’s HBO series “Girls” or the fatuous blogs and social media it will, due to its use of constructed reality, inevitably be compared with…Like [Kathy] Acker, [Heti] is a brilliant, original thinker and an engaging writer. " – Chris Kraus, LA Review of Books
“If you're not already reading Sheila Heti's second novel How Should A Person Be?, you should be. Heti's rousing, unapologetically messy, beautifully written, insightful and provocative book explores the frustrations and rewards of female friendship, and of trying to make art as a young woman in the 21st century. . . Heti is doing something very exciting within the form of the novel.” —Jezebel
“Heti excels at developing a cast of engaging, colorful and flawed characters.”– Willamette Week
“Enlightening, profoundly intelligent, and charming to read. . . . It reflects life in its incredible humor—and in some of its weird bits that might be muddled or unclear . . . with anxiety, hilarity and lots of great conversation.” – Interview Magazine
“There are no convenient epiphanies in Sheila Heti’s newest book How Should a Person Be? Instead there are several intertwined, grinding and brilliantly uncomfortable ones that require the reader to shed a few dozen layers in the service of self-discovery. . . She may depart from broad harbors, but she is an analytic zealot, never imparting trite one-liners or excusing herself. Reading her is an act of participation, discomfort and joy.” – SF Weekly
“Lena Dunham loves this novel…A fresh spin on friendship, art, sex, and philosophy in five acts. And the prose, often taking the form of a numbered list, is always engaging.” –Daily Candy
“[Heti creates] one of the most personable antiheroes ever… Her tone can be earnest and eager to please, flippant and crass, terribly lucid and darkly funny… Her tortured self-deprecation can read a little like Violette Leduc’s, and her poetic bluntness sometimes reminds me of Eileen Myles, but these authors come to mind mostly because, like Heti, they have written about women with unusual detail and feeling. Heti truly has a startling voice all her own, and a fresh take on fiction and autobiography’s overlap.” —Bookforum
"A new kind of book and new kind of person. A book that risks everything—shatters every rule we women try to follow in order to be taken seriously—and thus is nothing less than groundbreaking: in form, sexually, relationally and as a major literary work. With this complex, artfully messy and hilarious novel, Heti has done the rare and generous thing of creating more room for the rest of us. This is how a person should be."—Miranda July, author of No One Belongs Here More Than You and It Chooses You
“Oh crap. I don’t know how to begin talking about Sheila Heti or how good she is. People will say How Should A Person Be? is reminiscent of Patti Smith’s Just Kids or Ann Patchett’s Truth & Beauty and both of these things will be true. But I am still reeling from the originality of this novel. There are passages here so striking, to read them is to be punched in the heart.”—Sloane Crosley, author of How Did You Get This Number
"A seriously strange but funny plunge into the quest for authenticity."—Margaret Atwood, @MargaretAtwood
"The book’s form is fluid and unpredictable… [and] the architecture gives the prose a circular, easy feeling, even though Heti is taking a hard look at what makes life meaningful and how one doesn’t end up loveless and lost. It is book peopled by twentysomethings but works easily as a manual for anyone who happens to have run into a spiritual wall."—Sasha Frere-Jones, The Paris Review
"Utterly beguiling: blunt, charming, funny, and smart. Heti subtly weaves together ideas about sex, femininity and artistic ambition. Reading this genre-defying book was pure pleasure."—David Shields, author of Reality Hunger
"[A]n unforgettable book: intellectually exacting, unsettling in its fragility, bodily as anything painted by Freud, experimental yet crafted as hell, and yes, very funny."—The National Post
"Sheila Heti’s novel-from-life, How Should a Person Be?, was published in Canada in 2010, but won’t be out in the US until next June. Watch for it – it’s great." —Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding
“Original, contemplative, and often tangential, this is an unorthodox compilation of colorful characters, friendship, and sex that provides an unusual answer to Heti’s [titular] question.”—Publishers Weekly