She speaks with that questing and ingenuous tone throughout the book, but neither the novel nor its heroine is precious or naïve. Sheila has an intense, sporadic and submissive sexual affair with an artist named Israel ... Sheila herself can be fairly ridiculous, but not in the manner typical of a comic novel’s bumbling protagonist. Her occasional delusions of grandeur are familiar, perhaps ... But her far more egregious and unusual failing is her utter susceptibility to the ideas and desires of others ... More broadly, though, the novel shares with much reality television a kind of episodic aimlessness, and a focus on young, self-involved characters who spend a lot of time thinking about how they look to other people ... Heti sees the silliness in the desire for fame that drives such fare, but she also knows that same desire is involved in the impulse to make art ... 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.
Just when you think Heti has been too cute, or one of her many exclamation marks too archly faux‑kitsch, she will come back with something arresting like this: 'Let my breasts not satisfy you then. Let my cunt bore you completely, so that even all the other cunts in the world can't distract you from the boredom that comes over you when you think of mine.' The project of this novel, it seems, is not to be beautiful, or even liked, but to challenge the idea that art should have these effects. Art, it suggests, can be humiliating, banal, low. This novel, which includes not just real people but their emails and transcribed conversations, and dangles itself precariously somewhere between 'real life' and 'art' is, in the end, a meditation on ugliness rather than beauty, and reality rather than fiction.
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 ... For all of the wildness contained in Heti’s account of her struggles, the book is perfectly composed within the classical structure of five-act dramatic narrative ... Heti’s use of real art-world names, real events, real conversations and correspondence, owes a large debt to the work of the late Kathy Acker, which, due to our short cultural memory, might be obscured by the tedious arguments for and against the 'generational narcissism; of social media ... Despite their prolific drinking and drugging, Sheila and her friends are, at bottom, quite wholesome: they hold most of their conversations during walks, they ride their bikes to each other’s houses.
The inadequacy of the response is a kind of contemporary confession, just as Heti intends her book to be a larger portrait of a generation that knows the right questions but struggles to find the right answers ... Heti’s book has a pleasingly (sometimes irritatingly) free, formless, and autobiographical atmosphere. Chunks of the novel are written in the style of a play; she includes e-mails, authorial thoughts, and essay-ettes, and there is a general absence of plot. The prose is what one might charitably call basic: simple, direct, sometimes ungainly ... Heti may include real e-mails and recordings of actual conversations, but, of course, her book is shaped and plotted (however lightly), and uses fiction as well as autobiography ... A fair amount of the conversation has that sloppy, pert formlessness characteristic of university days, so that one occasionally has to remind oneself that the book’s author is thirty-five and not twenty ... There is, too, a troubling knowingness, an uneasiness about how seriously the novel should press down on its seriously interrogative title. This sometimes presents itself, interestingly, as a failure of realism ... This talented writer may well have identified a central dialectic of twenty-first-century postmodern being. Yet it’s hard to say whether she is the analyst of this evasiveness or its victim.
Sheila Heti seems to have done them one better in this book, making an ugly confessional novel both funny and pathetic, heroic and unassuming at the same time ... 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.
The book is an attempt to answer that titular question—and as something of a philosophical investigation, it is bound not to be everyone’s travel mug of fair-trade Darjeeling ... This is a story of girl meets girl, girl talks to girl, girl talks to girl again, girl buys same dress as girl, girl makes up with girl, and so forth. There are other friends in the constellation Heti presents, but they are dwarves to Margaux’s supergiant, at least in Sheila’s ordering of the universe. And it’s in her relationship with Margaux, a painter, that Sheila investigates, and reinvestigates, and reinvestigates, the question that obsesses her. This is not the kind of book you can really spoil, but I will say, right off the bat, that the process of asking turns out to be just as important as the answer ... Heti’s closer analogue might be Fiona Apple, who wrote a beautiful, musically virtuosic album with a long title that she fought for because it was what suited her ... This is a novel that wonders if the ugly can be beautiful, if there is clarity to be found in the drifting. The occasional banality of the conversations is a deliberate challenge, not least to the notion of banality itself.
A peculiar mix of autobiography, aesthetic manifesto and self-help manual, How Should a Person Be? was energetically discussed on its release last year in the United States, where the future of fiction seems to be an issue argued over with only marginally less vehemence than climate change (for carbon, read 'plot' and 'character') ... Such uncertainties define the book. Sheila decides that in art and writing 'you have to know where the funny is' – that’s how she talks – but you have to be fully plugged in to the book’s alternating current of irony and earnestness to know where the funny is when she compares her struggles to the trauma of an abused child or the failure of the Israelites to reach the promised land.
The book, described as a 'fictional notebook,' is a recording of the curiosity and conundrums of one woman, Sheila. The form of this inquiry owes more to social anthropology or documentary than fiction. This is a beguiling choice on Heti's part that is stimulating when blended into literary fiction ... Heti takes consistent pleasure in exploring contradiction and injecting erratic humour. (Her humour has the clout of a cricket bat) ... 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' ... 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 ... Curious and combative company.
How Should a Person Be? often feels like a transitional work, a book caught between new, reality TV-inspired concepts of self-presentation and fictional form, and old necessities of plot and character development: an ungainly beast ... Here is where reality can fail us: sometimes it is not that interesting. Sometimes the stakes are not that high. Fiction allows the writer to create a heightened version of reality, to raise the stakes on a familiar sort of conflict, to use the tools of suspense and surprise to awaken us into a startled sense of 'what it means to be human' ... Heti lets her edits show. The quarrels between Sheila and Margaux, and the estrangement and long journey-of-the-soul that follow, feel manufactured to add compulsion to the plot. They are over-narrated, which is a sad waste from such a talented scene-builder ... The rest of the book offers a devastating account of the traps women fall into nonetheless, namely allowing men to act as their sole mentors and sources of approval. It is, in a very new way, the most thoughtfully feminist novel I have read in years—because of its flaws, and not despite them.
It is impossible to tell what is real and what is fiction – but knowing that it is even partly taken from real life makes the navel-gazing somehow less forgivable. How Should a Person Be? is already equated with another solipsistic, semi-autobiographical outing, Girls, but that TV show is hilarious; this is practically po-faced by comparison ... Heti is also admirably unbothered about coming off well. The obsession throughout with what it means to be beautiful really boils down to her own fear that she is inherently an ugly person, lacking a soul, 'something wrong inside' ... You both groan inwardly and strain to catch the next revelation. It is frequently maddening – I don't often find myself actually rolling my eyes at a book – but also terribly compelling.
...at times has the feel of a knockabout philosophical inquiry into the nature of existence, masquerading as a particularly hip and self-involved fictional (or not) narrative ... Probably the most interesting thing that happens in this rather plotless, formless narrative is a competition between Margaux and another painter to create the ugliest painting imaginable ... At times there is something almost unbearably precious and narcissistic about this book ... But for all that there are flashes of inspired writing here, there is also a lot of solipsistic navel-gazing and self-important artistic condescension ... And yet, for all the rather annoying whining, there is something occasionally magical going on here.
Toronto-based Heti and her real-life friends, including Misha Glouberman with whom she wrote a previous book, are central characters in this meandering novel that attempts to erase the line between fact and fiction ... Pretentious navel-gazing without the humor of HBO’s Girls, which covers similar terrain.
Despite itself, it cultivates beauty and order, and aims for a sense of purpose that is implicit in the title ... Heti’s bigger concerns, however, are framed within the narratives of self-help and religion. Stories about Sheila’s futile attempts at life and writing are interwoven with passages about Jungian analysis and Bible stories. These narratives lend shape to Sheila’s story but dilute its affective power. As a result, How Should a Person Be? registers as a curiously complacent text, resolutely turned inward towards itself, and absolutely unaware about the world insofar as the world does not revolve around Sheila and the people she knows ... This maudlin attempt at drawing a connection, however tenuous, between her personal sense of triumph and the Biblical version of the triumph of Judaism leaves a rather bitter taste, particularly for a book that seems to have no sense of the continuously shifting cultural, social, and political landscapes of the present ... How Should a Person Be? is steeped in the icky sheen of the language of self help and psychology and is primarily interested in the Well-Adjusted Self making Beautiful and Truthful Art. I never got the sense that there’s anything truly at stake for Sheila...
Most novels which include a character with the name of the author do it as a metafictional game or joke, but when Sheila Heti calls her main character Sheila it is out of exasperation with the novel. How Should a Person Be? is the culmination of Heti’s attempts to write a novel about life when a novel is written in a room, away from life ... The idea that Sheila and Margaux might have had conversations like this about their work has troubled some critics: isn’t it all a bit self-indulgent? But if imaginary characters had such conversations, it wouldn’t be worrying in the same way, and Sheila and Margaux are real and not real ... Heti is going for ideas rather than fine prose, for invention rather than craft (she has said she particularly likes it that the novel’s prose is ‘not elevated’) ... These are small feminist gestures in a novel that has a big, almost invisible one at its centre: Sheila and Margaux’s relationship is the story ... Sheila makes it ugly to clear a space: for novels to be less fictional, for women to dream of being geniuses, for a way of being ‘honest and transparent and give away nothing’.
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 truth ... For Heti, the personal is philosophical (and the philosophical is personal) ... The novel sparkles with invention, using e-mails, letters and transcripts from ostensibly recorded conversations to break up longer sections of prose. And the prose itself is full of charm, wit, subtle surprises and twisting turns of phrase ... Although the tone of the novel is very 21st century, there is something Proustian about Sheila's obsessive pursuit of truth, her wide-eyed infatuation with the world, her writer's block and the importance she attributes to seemingly normal interactions with friends. Some readers might find this navel-gazing a bit self-involved, but in a way it's the whole point.
This authorial self-consciousness is clear from the novel’s by-now conventional metafictional mode...it is occasionally punctuated with segments of dialogue, reportedly recorded by Heti while hanging out with her friends over the period of a year ... The novel is accordingly stripped of devices like a narrator, descriptions, metaphors, etc., and yet it loses none of its poetry and succeeds as a literary artifact, rather than a collection of quotidian observations ... Part of what distinguishes Heti’s writing is the very banality of it. She tends to use short, staccato words, to dangle her prepositions, to make clear, simple pronouncements ... The genius of Heti’s conceit is that if the novel seems sometimes a bit thin, or self-indulgent, a case could be made that this is part of the point. I did get the feeling, reading How Should a Person Be?, that Heti’s editor at Anansi is a little afraid of her. There are occasional digressions that amount to little, as well as a whole sub-theme involving ancient Jews that didn’t seem to cohere with the rest.