How Should a Person be?

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November 5, 2012

How Should A Person Be?
By Sheila Heti
Published by House of Anansi
306 pages, $18.95

Reviewed by Jenny Aitken

The cover of this book describes it as a novel from life, and it is certainly that. The novel opens with the protagonist, Sheila, posing a time-worn question: How should a person be?

In How Should a Person Be, Heti fictionalizes actual events and conversations she and fellow artist friends experience over the course of one year, as she grapples with her identity. A combination of autobiography and fiction, the novel is written as freeform prose, weaving in transcribed conversations and actual emails throughout.

The “novel” begins with the protagonist deciding to divorce her husband after realizing they were together more out of convenience than love: “It was like we were afraid of hurting one another. We never fought or pushed, as if the world was hard enough.” After the divorce, Sheila forms a close friendship with a painter named Margaux, despite neither woman having ever sustained a female friendship.

As Sheila struggles to write a play commissioned by a feminist theatre, she looks to Margaux for inspiration, deciding to tape their conversations. Their discussions focus primarily on art and what it means to be an artist, because Margaux, “is made impatient with conversations about relationships or men.” The narrative follows the two women, as they spend their days working in their shared studio, and their nights drinking in hopes of finding inspiration at the bottom of the glass.

Sheila feels worthless in her inability to write and takes on a sadistic lover named Israel, despite knowing – in fact, largely because – he wants nothing from her but sex. She finally ends the relationship by purposefully degrading herself to the point that neither of them could ever feel sexual desire towards the other.

Desiring to create a work of beauty, despite her writer’s block, Sheila begins working as a shampoo girl at a hair salon, where she revels in the opportunity to work at a job where she feels competent. Sheila decides to use her Margaux recordings as source material, which leads to an argument between the friends. Unequipped to deal with the conflict, Sheila succumbs to her usual avoidance patterns by taking off to New York City, leaving the broken friendship behind. Sheila comes to realize, “Margaux was not like the stars in the sky. There was only one Margaux – not Margaux’s scattered everywhere through the darkness.” This realization leads to her return to Toronto, where she fights, and succeeds, at re-establishing their friendship.

Although the use of transcribed conversations added to the novel’s raw, confessional feeling, the lack of structure or clear narrative arc made it seem disjointed and scattered. There were often long segments that failed to move the action forward, including several pages spent describing a nightmare, and a ten-page transcription of a conversation between Sheila and the man at a copy store.
Nonetheless, this novel is unabashed and quirky, and although Sheila realizes the impossibility of determining how a person should be, she discovers – along with the reader – that the process of asking is more important than any answer. As for her own life, it dawns on her, “I made what I could with what I had.”

Jenny Aitken is a regular reviewer for the Coastal Spectator


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