The main reason I chose to read this novel is that another reviewer compared it to Scarlett Thomas, one of my favorite novelists. While I do see some similarities, I think that Thomas has far more interesting ideas that she explores with her writing, at least to me. How Should A Person Be? is a (semi?) autobiographical novel, whose main character, Sheila, is working on a play and hangs out with her artist friends, pondering the question in the title: how should a person be? I found the beginning of the novel to be quite boring, especially when she talked about her failed marriage. Thankfully, soon Sheila meets Margaux, a painter, and things get interesting from there. We get transcripts of conversations recorder on Sheila's recorder, and plenty of e-mails. I love that kind of stuff in novels. She also meets Israel, an artist that she says is much better in bed than at art. There is a quite explicit chapter close to the middle of the book where Sheila rants about Israel and how everyone should get together with him, which was quite hilarious. There was a chapter in the beginning of the book where Sheila talks to her Jungian analyst about what it means to be a puer aeternus, a person who never really grows up. That section spoke to me more than anything else in the whole book.
Overall, I really liked How Should A Person Be? It was a pretty quick read. It was at turns boring, depressing, funny, touching, insightful, and even repulsive. It's a novel about what it means to be an artist, what it means to be a woman, and more importantly, what it means to be human. There is no great answer at the end of the book, but isn't that the way life is anyway?
Recommended if you're in the mood for something a little different, that makes you think about the meaning (or meaninglessness) of it all, for a little while.
on August 2, 2012
This is not a novel for the faint of heart. It is at times crushing, hilarious, biting, and insightful. But more than anything, it is brave. Heti is genius in a way that hurts my feelings, and she risks our understanding of that brilliance by delivering a novel that is meticulously crafted to feel ugly. The complexity, the vulgarity, and the flip dialogue are no mistake, oversight, or a symptom of lazy writing. Like it or not, you connect with the protagonist--and Heti herself--because she is as scattered and insecure as we all are. That's why we love her, why we hate her, and sometimes why we can't stand her (as previous reviews can attest). It's those qualities, or lack thereof, that make the book such an arresting read.
Though I suspected at first I wasn't the target audience, I plowed through this unlikely masterwork in a weekend. It's a daring piece of literary "fiction" that you really have to let wash over you. I had never read anything like it (and I doubt many have), yet it always felt familiar. It's an important book, one I've been recommending to nearly everyone I know.
Sheila is a divorced playwright living in Toronto. Although she has a broader social circle centered in the local art scene, she latches onto one particular artist, Margaux, after her divorce. They quickly journey from casual acquaintance and mutual admiration to close friendship, something more fulfilling but entailing more risk as well. Romantically, she becomes the lust interest of the sexy, brooding artist, Israel. The novel uses these relationships as a means for Sheila's self-exploration. Structurally, there's a loose linear narrative, but it's hardly the book's focus. Sheila is obsessed with determining how she should live. How is a young female artist supposed to be? As she reminisces about past boyfriends, finds and loses a husband, makes new friends, and struggles to write (and alternately to avoid writing) a "feminine" (if not feminist) play - while her friends compete to see who can create the ugliest painting - she reveals herself and her search to the reader.
"How Should a Person Be?" is no conventional novel, but a fictionalized (to what extent?) memoir. Sheila is the only character developed in any way. Margaux and Israel (and the other bit players) exist only as a means for Sheila's own self-exploration and expression. So if Margaux appears to be something of an artistic savant, incredibly gifted but socially awkward and aloof, and Israel appears to be sadistic and perverse, focused only on deriving sexual pleasure from Sheila's humiliation, perhaps they aren't to blame. Sheila's inner life is the novel's focus.
Sheila is an engaging, fascinating protagonist. Profoundly self-aware, she exposes her thoughts, feelings, and motivations with complete transparency. Whether she's tapping into Jungian archetypes like the Puer Aeternus and analyzing dreams or pondering her Jewish heritage in the vein of how Moses' struggles might mirror her own, her mind is vibrant and alive. She's completely empathetic because her plight is universal. Her voice is utterly authentic (surely in no small part due to the not so subtle autobiographical nature of the novel).
As intriguing and enjoyable as the novel is, however, the latter half doesn't fulfill the promise of the beginning. Sheila's search doesn't culminate in anything radical if it can be said to culminate at all. Although she arrives at certain conclusions and learns a few lessons, the search is by no means complete. Sheila doesn't seem to have obviously or substantively matured or evolved in any meaningful way over the course of the novel. The author provides a delightfully intimate portrait of her struggle, but it's clearly ongoing. To that end, a sequel in a few years time would provide a very intriguing case study!
Readers who enjoy Scarlett Thomas' novels would likely enjoy this one. The protagonists share more than a passing resemblance and they explore similar themes.
on April 23, 2013
This book is really the first novel I have been unable to finish.It is self-indulgent poorly written claptrap and I would advise any one thinking of reading it to STOP NOW. I feel like I deserve my money and my time back. Who was the editor? How did this book get into print? Someone should be answerable for this heinous crime perpetrated on the reading public. It is essentially like those conversations you overhear on the bus between narcissistic 15 year olds, and are so annoyed by that you get off early so you don't have to endure it further.
This is truly one of the strangest novels I have ever read. I like quirky and am a big fan of Miranda July (who wrote one of the book's endorsements), and July is likely the author I would most closely compared Sheila Heti with. But Heti is no Miranda July.
Overall, there is no coherent novel-worthy storyline. There are snippets of life (embellished one imagines, since the book is listed as fiction) that can best be called short stories. A few I found brilliant, insightful (for example, the Miami Beach spider tale). Overall, the rest was a lot of rambling about a life I didn't find that interesting. Sorry, Sheila.
The main storyline (if one can call it that) seems to center around her relationship with her friend Margaux. Still, this is not like any friendship I have ever had or read about. And these two women consider themselves geniuses! What?
Then, and perhaps most disheartening about the whole book, there is the author's relationship with Israel, her lover. Frankly, that could have well and truly been removed from the book.
The author complains throughout the book about men always trying to teach her something (not an invalid complaint, by the way), but her relationship with this man is far more abusive than a man simply boring her.
In the end, I did find some of the book incredibly insightful, but overall it wasn't worth reading through the rest to get there.
on February 7, 2013
I had high hopes of this novel when I first read the blurb but unfortunately it left me completely cold. The main character has been commissioned to write a feminist play but she really doesn't have a clue where to start. She decides to find out more about people and starts tape recording conversations with friends - especially Margaux - with whom her relationship is somewhat ambivalent. Sheila is divorced and is currently having an abusive relationship with a man called Israel whose tastes seem a little strange - being charitable about them.
The novel doesn't have a plot as such and it consists of insights into Sheila's life and thoughts on topics many and various. Conversations are set out something in the manner of a play script and e-mails are reproduced in what is, to me, a strange format. I found that after the first hundred pages I just wanted to scream at Sheila to get on and write her play and put us all out of our misery. A lot of the writing is almost stream of consciousness but to my mind it doesn't wholly convinced - other authors have done it in much more readable fashion.
I found much of the sexual imagery totally repulsive in the same way I found the recurring obsession with human bodily functions repulsive. The constant drinking to the point of drunkenness and the insistence that it aids the creative process was also pretty boring after a while. It made me think the characters were all teenagers trying to impress instead of supposed adults trying to make their way in the world.
If you like navel gazing on a grand scale and sexual imagery which is to my mind designed to shock and disgust then you may enjoy this book. I didn't enjoy it at all and had no sympathy for any of the characters. I didn't feel the book was well written either as it seemed to be designed to shock rather than to entertain. Literary it may be but this is the sort of book which can put people off literary fiction for life.
Two stars, and I'm feeling that's on the generous side. Here is Sheila Heti's "How Should a Person Be? A Novel from Life," with a first person protagonist named Sheila. So what are we supposed to take from that? In practice, what we end up with is an entirely disingenuous book, something phony and even fraudulent.
There has been a gender-case made for this book, both in the prominent blurb from Miranda July and in on-line discussions. If that's a real case, than it would seem to undermine the status of women, because the protagonist is shallow, self-involved and dumb, as are her friends. Perhaps the book is meant as parody, if so then give it one stars because this is incompetent parody: it tells, incessantly and tediously, rather than shows, it's humor is clumsy and infantile, and the rhetorical writerly flourishes are on the level of a fledgling high school student. It's poorly written throughout, with dialogue that takes a lot of endurance to wade through.
The fraud, the phoniness makes it part of a moment that also prominently features Lena Dunham's HBO show "Girls." Somehow, it's seen as brave and hip to show the lives of the worst of the privileged bourgeoisie, the ones with no imagination and ambition, except to discern what everybody else is thinking and doing and, if you can gauge how cutting edge that is, imitate it. The show, and this book, have a swagger that is unearned when they are as manipulative and sentimental as the cheesiest soap opera, just with a demographic defined by a vintage clothes, 'cool' bands and some tattoos.
"How Should a Person Be?" is ordinary in the worst way: it is obvious and uninteresting yet markets itself as cool. Ordinary, daily life can be pretty gripping and vital stuff, as Harvey Pekar, Charles Bukowski and many other creative people have shown, but that daily life needs to be lived by someone with some ideas and experiences of their own.
on December 26, 2014
Reading this book was like grabbing drinks with that friend that just rambles on and on about themselves, never asking you how you've been.
on September 12, 2012
There is nothing in this book of any possible interest. Endless weak bits of dialogue that go nowhere. There is no character development. There is no plot. It baffles me as to how something this bad can find a publisher.
on July 20, 2012
How "should" a person be? The title alone should raise red flags. Unsurprisingly, the narrative follows the same line. If this is representative of her generation, we're all in trouble.
How should I be? How should I be in order for people to recognize how great I am? What can I say, smoke, wear, do? What kind of lifestyle should I have? How can I have that thin veneer that allows me to be seen as a celebrity? How can I spend more time seeking the answer to these questions and less time doing other things? Will it help if I think about, write about, and talk to others about these questions more? How have others who have been recognized "been"? I don't care what they *did*, what they worked toward outside of their image and reputation, I only care about how others saw them. Should I feign humility? Aloofness? Jadedness? How about forced wit and self-indulgence?
How should I "be" in a relationship? Surely not earnest. Please. Surely not forthright and plainspoken. That's so cliche'. Surely not emotionally available. That's for old people. You know, people in their 30's.
But really, how should I be? Will someone please just tell me? I'm paradoxically both arrogant and ragingly inscure, and I crave affirmation. Its not MY fault, is it?