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How Should a Person Be?

May 29, 2013

Sheila Heti, How Should a Person Be?Sheila Heti, How Should a Person Be? 2012

Why make up characters when you can use your friends?

In writing Ticknor, her first novel, Sheila Heti inhabited a man who lived two centuries ago. “I was a lonely writer alone in a room,” she said at the Sydney Writers Festival, “and I knew I could never do that again.”

She wanted to be around her friends, so instead of being torn between life and art, she merged the two, writing a novel with herself and her friends as characters. In both life and the book she records her conversations with her best friend, the Canadian artist Margaux Williamson. The version of Margaux in the novel is disturbed by this, one of several difficulties that eventually lead to a crisis in the friendship. The story is fictionalised, so we don’t know what happened in life, but at the festival Heti told us that she always showed the drafts to Williamson, who sometimes got angry.

By talking to her friends and recording conversations, Sheila in the novel is trying to answer the question: how should a person be?

For years and years I asked it of everyone I met. I was always watching to see what they were going to do in any situation, so I could do it too.

… How can you say, I’d rather be responsible like Misha than irresponsible like Margaux? Responsibility looks so good on Misha, and irresponsibility looks so good on Margaux. How could I know which would look best on me?

Clearly the question has no definitive answer and the novel will not end with wise words of self-help. Rather, we follow Sheila’s struggle with the question of how to be and her attempts to free herself from it, and from her need for the admiration of other people, especially the charismatic and depraved Israel, with whom she is trapped in a cycle of humiliating sex.  All of this occurs in the context of her deep friendship with Margaux. Experiencing the intimacy and vicissitudes of this female platonic love affair is, for me, the most rewarding aspect of the book.

Sheila Heti

Sheila Heti (Source: Random House)

How Should a Person Be? has been criticised for triviality and self-indulgence. Anna Holmes suggests that this could be because it does not follow the usual rules for female characters in popular culture. Reacting against those rules in 1985, the artist Alison Bechdel devised a test: “In order to be considered a realistic depiction of women, a pop-culture product must feature 1) at least two female characters who 2) talk to one another about 3) something other than a man.” How Should a Person Be? meets the Bechdel  test – Sheila and Margaux talk about everything except men.

Sheila Heti was open and accountable to her friends while writing this book, and respected their boundaries. This is in contrast to another guest at the festival, the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose work My Struggle (Min Kamp) consists of six huge volumes and tells the personal history of himself and his family. The work sold half a million copies in Norway and won several literary prizes, but shocked his family by revealing, without consent, details such as his ex-wife’s bipolar illness. Despite the acclaim for this work (James Wood says there is “something ceaselessly compelling” about it) I will not be reading any of its 3,500 pages. Flicking through the first volume in the festival bookstore – a weightlifting exercise – was sufficient.

Some critics have found Heti’s book to be lightweight, but I’m glad that didn’t dissuade me from reading it.

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