Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? is subtitled “A Novel from Life.” So you know it isn’t exactly a novel or she wouldn’t have invented some new category of novel for it. What novel isn’t from life? Life is the stuff from which we make novels. Maybe her life is the stuff of this novel, in which case…oh, never mind. The book is sort of Life of Pi meets Kurt Vonnegut–or something. It’s part philosophy, part exploration of what it means to be an artist, part unfiltered recollection of random sex and playwright’s ennui and painter’s acrylic navel gazing and a Zen bit about apprenticing in a hair salon.
The narrative is studded with luminous observations like: “You are only given one. The one you are given is the one to put a fence around. Life is not a harvest. Just because you have an apple doesn’t mean you have an orchard. You have an apple. Put a fence around it.” Sheila, the narrator, wanders from Toronto to Art Basel and South Beach to the East Village and back to Canada. She has sex with an untalented artist named Israel–or she surrenders to whatever Israel needs from her at the moment. She has a female painter-friend named Margaux who waxes philosophic at every turn but is the slightest bit touchy about any number of things. Sheila can’t believe in a feminist play she has been commissioned to write, wants to abandon it, can’t abandon it, considers abandoning it–anything but writing it actually.
Art is hard. Art Basel is pretentious. Art is a business. Art is however someone else defines it. Life is art. Or not. Probably not. Life is hard, though. Good writer, odd book, interesting but a little too self-observant. If you lived inside the heads of these characters you’d go mad and end up working in a convenience store. Unless you produced some world-shattering art. But then there’s that whole art is hard thing.
How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life Sheila Heti | Henry Holt and Company 2012