How Should a Person Be? – Sheila Heti

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. I was always listening to their answers, so if I liked them, I could make them my answers too. I noticed the way people dressed, the way they treated their lovers – in everyone, there was something to envy. You can admire anyone for being themselves. It’s hard not to, when everyone’s so good at it. But when you think of them all together like that, how can you choose?

Sheila Heti has written a book about a woman called Sheila who has recently divorced her husband and is working out how she should live. During it she’s cultivating a friendship with a female artist named Margaux:

…I realized I’d never had a woman either [for a friend]. I supposed I didn’t trust them. What was a woman for? Two women was an alchemy I didn’t understand. I hadn’t been close to a girl since Angela broke my heart and told all of my secrets to everyone.

The book uses emails and transcripts between Sheila and several characters that, we are led to believe in the introductory notes, are real. Sheila Heti is divorced and is friends with the artist Margaux Williamson. So far, so meta.

I should probably point out here that I am a huge fan of metafiction. Lily Dunn tweeted a Michael Cunningham quote from A Home at the End of the World yesterday: We become the stories we tell ourselves. And essentially, Heti is creating a story from events that have happened recently in her own life. She turns them into a narrative using two devices: one, a competition between Margaux and their friend their friend Sholem as to who can create the ugliest painting and two, Sheila’s attempt to write a play for a feminist theatre company:

“Does it have to be a feminist play?”

“No,” they said, “but it has to be about women.”

I didn’t know anything about women! And yet I hoped to be able to write it, being a woman myself.

So, through female friendship, art, working in a hair salon and sex with an unsuitable man, Sheila sets about trying to work out how a person should be. If it sounds like something that should be followed with a hashtag of firstworldproblems, you’re probably right but Heti balances her angst with humour.

In a scene set in Miami where Sheila and Margaux have gone to attend an art fair at which some of Margaux’s paintings will be displayed, they return to their hotel room after dinner and watch a video in which ‘an heiress gave her boyfriend a hand job’. Sheila thinks to herself:

Consider all the warriors down through time, without great brains – like you! – who nevertheless struck the enemy right through the breast. They just kept their wrists steady and struck.

Then I glanced at the painting of the Statue of Liberty on the wall behind us and wondered, Where would all of America be – and wouldn’t the flame long be extinguished in the sea – if not for the tall girl’s steady wrist?

I won’t spoil the end of the book, where Margaux and Sholem try to decide who’s won the Ugliest Painting Competition and Sheila finally realises how a person should be, but I will say that it’s probably perfect.

I loved this book and the more time I’ve spent thinking about it, the greater I think it is. I’m planning to re-read it soon.

Thanks to Harvill Secker/Vintage Books for the review copy.