- Hardcover: 288 pages
- Publisher: House of Anansi Press; Canadian First edition (Sept. 25 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0887842402
- ISBN-13: 978-0887842405
- Product Dimensions: 14 x 2.3 x 19.7 cm
- Shipping Weight: 454 g
- Average Customer Review: 7 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #29,005 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
How Should a Person Be? Hardcover – Sep 25 2010
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Quill & Quire
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.
...a self-conscious, darkly funny exploration of the strained complexities of female friendship, the makings of bad art, and the finer points of awkward sex...[Heti] celebrates the extraordinary imperfection in ordinary life. (Jackie Wong The Georgia Straight 2010-09-29)
...a portrait of the artist as a young woman, a postmodern self-help book and an autobiography of the mind. (Rebecca Wigod Vancouver Sun 2010-09-24)
...an unforgettable book: intellectually exacting, unsettling in its fragility, bodily as anything painted by Freud, experimental yet crafted as hell, and yes, very funny. (Claudia Dey National Post 2010-11-25)
...the good kind of genre muddle...How Should a Person Be? emerges as part of an entirely different genre: the realistic self-help book. You might not want to follow in Sheila's footsteps, but tagging along on her quixotic mission will be as useful as anything else you're likely to read this year. (Michael Hingston Vue 2010-12-01)
Heti flails out in all directions, employing a winsome flexibility and an underlying sadness that deflates any pretension and focuses on the big questions of life. The exuberance of youth is shot through with magic threads of wisdom. (Candace Fertile Edmonton Journal 2010-12-04)
This is a novel that abounds with [...] wisdom, arrived at in fresh and new ways. For all its inventiveness, there is an old-fashioned integrity, an attention to thought in the prose, resulting in unusual and sharp-eyed observations . . . we are treated to some truly profound ruminations on what it means to be an artist in our indifferent era. (Literary Review of Canada 2011-04-01)
From pithy quotables ('Night fell, but then, there are always holes to fall into,') to the oddly profound ('If now in some ways I drink too much, it's not that I lack a reverence for the world'), this is a novel that rewards reading, sitting with, and rereading. (Lauren Elkin Quarterly Conversation 2011-06-06)
Original, contemplative, and often tangential, this is an unorthodox compilation of colorful characters, friendship, and sex that provides an unusual answer to Heti’s question. (Publishers Weekly 2012-04-30)
Part confessional, part play, part novel, and more -- it's one wild ride. The upfront and unabashed sex makes for a voyeuristic, sometimes hilarious, read. Think HBO's Girls in book form. (Marie Claire 2012-06-01)
... what Heti’s brain and fingertips offer are expanded possibilities for what the novel can be and can become ... How Should a Person Be? makes curious and combative company. (Anakana Schofield Globe and Mail 2010-10-08)
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And the writing is just tops. Funny, weird, jarring, insightful.
Heti clumsily presents the notions of a female defecating and the intricacies of oral sex as if they hadn't been trotted out and been beaten to death by her innumerable predecessors, all the while patting herself on the back for doing an artistic service to the world. The book absolutely reeks of the smug self-satisfaction only a masterpiece could justify, and while I am absolutely convinced that Sheila Heti believes herself to be an author of such artistic prowess, I remain woefully unconvinced.
A newly divorced playwright, Sheila struggles to complete a commissioned work while searching for a sense of self. She claims to desire a simple life of fame without having to change her life. In addition to writing, Sheila works in a beauty salon where her boss Uri preaches beauty in balance. She also spends time with her eccentric artist friends including Margaux, to whom she dedicates the book. The novel includes actual taped conversations between Sheila and Margaux as well as emails between the two. After a spell of tasteless partying and druggy debauchery, Margaux "unfriends" Heti for invading her privacy and for buying the same yellow dress at an art festival in Miami.
Meanwhile, Sheila meets a baker named Israel, who considers himself a painter. Heti describes their sadomasochistic antics and worries that she's becoming a narcissist, not without good reason. Finally, Heti leaves Toronto for New York, but ends up no happier there. After a gambling jaunt to Atlantic City, she returns to Toronto and presumably resumes her shiftless life. Definitely not a page-turner.
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