This book is definitely not going to be to everyone's taste, but then Sheila Heti would be the first person to acknowledge that. For, as Heti says on page one, "you can admire anyone for being themselves", and that is really what this book is about; although more importantly it is the way that this book is concerned with this topic that makes it so monumental and has resulted in it receiving so much praise (although apparently not on Amazon).
"How Should a Person Be?" is not concerned with living up to traditional expectations of what a novel should be, it is concerned only with saying what it wants to say, and saying it in the best way the author can find to say it. It is a memoir-cum-novel-cum play about a female writer (also called Sheila) trying to write a play and failing, trying to hold together a friendship and partially failing, and trying to understand how a person should be, and finally understanding it (sort of) through her failings. By stripping away many of the pretences of traditional fiction, Heti finds a way of drawing the reader into her world, taking the reader along with her, through her failings and her despair and her sufferings and out the other side. And it is this highly personal, self-flagellating method of story-telling that helps to get across the book's message: "A life without failure, suffering or doubt [is] empty of those things that make a human life meaningful." A person should be someone who is happy to fail, who is prepared to keep on failing, to face up to their failings (as Heti is doing with this book, which is not the play she set out to write), and to learn from their failings; rather than someone who keeps running away from their failings in the hope of finding a place where they never fail, suffer or doubt themselves.
The book is about more than this, although this is its key message. But as I said above, a lot of what the book is about is connected to the way the book is constructed, in fragmentary chunks, in acts like a play (Sheila's failure to write a play is her success; because she has a five act book here, so isn't that a play, even if it isn't the kind of play she set out to write, or the kind of thing normally called 'a play'?), with events and its protagonist sprawling itinerantly across North America in the same way as Sheila's mind sprawls itinerantly across the plains of life.
A traditional novel shows us a rounded image of a "traditional" person (a 19th century image of a person, living a sort of "monotrack" life), embedded in one place, living an apparently linear life. Heti understands that real people and real life are not like that anymore. With the internet, with the ease of moving around from place to place, with our atomised society, few of us really live lives that fan out into a kind of linear narrative. Rather we live, as David Shields puts it in his book How Literature Saved My Life, a sort of collage life, taking all these myriad things that happen to us and trying to fit them together in the best way that we can.
If "How Should a Person Be?" doesn't sound like the kind of book for you, that's ok. And if it sounds like the kind of thing you might hate, that is perhaps even better. For as Heti says towards the end of this book: "The only way to go somewhere new is to do the thing I most fear." So go on, give this book a try. It might scare you, and you might despise it, but it is guaranteed to take you somewhere new.
3 people found this helpful.
Was this review helpful to you?