An Imitation of Life

Sheila Heti, How Should a Person Be?

Henry Holt, 320pp, £15.99, ISBN 9780805094725

reviewed by Tom Cutterham

How much longer will publishers, booksellers and lawyers maintain the illusion of a border between fiction and non-fiction? There’s a disclaimer in the front of How Should a Person Be?, as in any other novel, that tells us that all the things portrayed are either ‘products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.’ But the legal angle is a red herring. Plenty of publishers have been sued for defamation in books that were sold from the fiction shelves. So what’s really at stake? Why have so many reviews of Sheila Heti’s book – including this one – begun by questioning its status as fiction?

Here’s my hypothesis: the problem needs to be maintained because it isn’t just a way of categorising writing, it’s also very often the subject of writing. It’s as if we were undergoing a perpetual Versailles conference: it’s through the negotiation of this impossible border that the border itself – and thus the need to negotiate it – comes into being. Both commerce and art are at work here, as they always are in literary culture. The fiction/non-fiction divide is the stuff of retail displays and marketing departments, but for writers it can stand in for authentic problems with truth and reality.

This was one of David Foster Wallace’s abiding themes: his endnoting style parodied academic reality-effects, and in The Pale King’s ‘author here’ passages he gave a ghostly nod through the fourth wall. How Should a Person Be? doesn’t approach the problem with Wallace’s debilitating scepticism, though. It has more in common with Marilyn French’s 1977 autobiographical novel, The Women’s Room. Both ask what it would mean ‘for a woman to try to land in another woman’s heart’. Both adopt the collage-like method of taking the lives and thoughts of others – of friends – to construct a fractured philosophical vision.

Heti’s book is ‘a novel from life’, with real events and characters, names and events left intact, real emails and dialogue transcribed; the mirror image of those memoirs, marketed as non-fiction, which turn out not to be. It’s mainly the story of Sheila’s failure to write a play, and of her friendship with a Toronto painter called Margaux. They find each other, fall out, and make up. Margaux and Sholem hold an ugly painting competition. Uri, the hairdresser, decides to teach Sheila everything he knows.

Add the surnames and it wouldn’t work – which makes me wonder what celebrity autobiographies would be like if they did the same thing. To deal in first names is to speak of people as they exist in a specific personal world, which is after all a kind of fiction. Consider the opposite, something like Tao Lin’s Richard Yates, whose characters are consistently labelled ‘Haley Joel Osment’ and ‘Dakota Fanning’ – the full, famous names serve to obscure the final traces of conventional affect.

How Should a Person Be?, in contrast, is wilfully sentimental. Heti may doubt the meaningfulness or success of what she has written, but never her own life – except, perhaps, during the ‘interlude’ of sexual self-abasement and self-effacement in the middle of the book. It isn’t the novel so much as Sheila’s life itself, like all lives, which is an artistic creation. ‘When we try to turn ourselves into a beautiful object,’ she writes, ‘it is because we mistakenly consider ourselves to be an object, when a human being is really’ a different kind of art, ‘a gesture, and a reproduction of the human type.’ The gesture here is, finally, a gesture of love.

And like love, lives are both process and product, verb and noun. Although Heti writes more here about painting than theatre, it’s the latter – the form she is herself trained in – that best embodies that duality. A play exists in different senses: the time while the performers are actually on the stage is only one of them. When Heti transcribes conversations as dialogue, it’s as if life is a performance writing itself. Sheila can’t write her play because her life is the play, is the novel, is her life. What she ends up with is How Should a Person Be? – a book with a painting of itself on the cover.

Early on, Heti writes (or Sheila reflects), ‘I know that personality is just an invention of the news media. I know that character exists from the outside alone ... But how do you build a soul?’ The book succeeds as a reflection on a character that is ostensibly a failure. There is no centre to Sheila, but she manages to build herself out of other people, their odds and ends, out of conversations, traditions, relationships, out of the roles she plays, out of what she reads, and hears, and does. Heti does something beautiful and impressive in showing how not only characters in books are like this, but real people, who always stand on the borders of fiction.
Tom Cutterham teaches American history at the University of Birmingham, and is the author of Gentlemen Revolutionaries: Power and Justice in the New American Republic.