In the signature scene of Rainey Royal, the titular teen-aged…
It would be really easy to dismiss Sheila Heti’s “novel from life” How Should a Person Be? by claiming not to be the target audience. Or, I could say that I am unable to relate to this gaggle of apolitical artists and playwrights who seem to be affluent enough to not worry about finances and the world around them. But then I remember that when writing is good, you don’t have to be able to relate to the characters because the story will make you feel their situation. And perhaps, on that level, Heti has succeeded here if what she wanted me to feel in this situation was unending annoyance and total boredom about these people who spend all their time wanking on about art and what it means and friendship. Actually, that does sound like a pretty good book, but sadly this one is not pretty good.
Ugh. I don’t even know where to begin.
This ‘novel’ involves Shelia and her new BFF Margaux, plus their various friends and lovers. Sheila tapes this little gang of artsty fartsies as they go about their lives being artsy and talking about their art. ART! Ostensibly Sheila is trying to figure out how a person should be, whatever the hell that means. I’ve read the book and I don’t know what it means. In fact, I can’t even really tell you how any of the ‘characters’ are. They float around in this creative mist divorced from the actual world. I can’t tell when they are in time and if it weren’t for obvious mentions of citys Miami, Toronto, New York, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you where they were on the planet. I definitely can’t tell you if these are freshly-graduated twentysomethings who are full of themselves and everything they learned in college and so they think every little thought they have is the most fascinating them ever or not. Or if they are the worst kind of thirtysomethings mired in their unending narcissism and prolonged adolescence where the only thing that matters is them.
This book actually makes me angry and as I read I found myself highlighting the more rage-inducing passages. For instance:
“One good thing about being a woman is we haven’t too many examples yet of what a genius looks like”
“So I thought about marriage day and night. And I went straight for it, like a cripple goes for a cane”
“The world is made up of poets and retards, and everyone’s a poet, and everyones a retard.”
And these, while the more inflammatory and insensitive passages are indicative of the kind of ‘character’ Sheila is, so wholly self-involved that she utters things like this. She is awful. And I haven’t even addressed the entire chapter full of heteronormative slut-shaming bullshit. Spending time with Sheila in her little world where people talk like this where their world is filled with people exactly like them felt like the worst kind of claustrophobia. Reading this book is like being stuck in a meeting room for hours on end with a table full of assholes.
Barf. This is one of those books that I can’t quite figure out how it got published. Perhaps it’s making a bigger point about something. Art? Life? Narcissism? There’s got to be a special kind of upper-class artistic privilege that I can’t tap into that makes this book seem like a good idea. I don’t know because I don’t get it. At all.