Visitors: Sheila Heti — How Should a Person Be?

31 May

Visiting us this month at Vouched is Adam Robinson, editor of Publishing Genius Press and author of Adam Robison and Other Poems and Say, Poem.

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How Should a Person Be
by Sheila Heti
Fiction, 320pgs
Henry Holt and Co.
$25 (hardback)

This is the last day of May, which means it’s the last day of my Visitorship here, something I’ve enjoyed even if I haven’t posted in the last couple weeks like I meant to. But the last day of May means tomorrow is the first day of June, which is the month that brings us Sheila Heti’s amazing, vivid and vital novel How Should A Person Be? It comes out on the 19th, and you’ll want to bring a sleeping bag and camp outside the bookstore for this one.

The thing that is so remarkable about it, I think (as if there is just one thing), is its structure. The chapters don’t necessarily follow each other in a linear way. It’s like an umbrella — straight until you open it, then you see how all the parts were touching all the other parts all along. The novel, which is both fiction and non-fiction, and dubbed by the publisher “a novel from life,” really revolves around the titular question. It addresses it not just through the engaging story, but with deliberately philosophical and critical insights. For instance:

… the three ways the art impulse can manifest itself are: as an object, like a painting; as a gesture; and as a reproduction, such as a book. When we try to turn ourselves into a beautiful object, it is because we mistakenly consider ourselves to be an object, when a human being is really the other two: a gesture, and a reproduction of the human type. One only has to travel on a subway during rush hour and pull into a station and see all the people waiting to get on and off to be struck by how many of us there actually are in the world.

It takes a writer of extraordinary abilities to comprise a novel from nuggets like that. What’s more, there’s a sort of fatalism in that quote, I guess, but as a whole the book doesn’t come across as hopeless. Maybe the gist of it could be summed up by cutting “how” from the title — a person should be. We are given that should. It’s remarkably hopeful, the distinction between “a person is” and “a person should be.”

My copy of the book is scarred with underlinings and the margins are blackened with stars — and I make it a point NOT to write in books. I practically read the 300 pager in one sitting. The unique way the novel works makes it difficult to contextualize things, or I would type out a few more of my favorite passages. Instead I’ll just offer my strongest recommendation that you take Amazon up on their discount. It’s currently $16.50 for the hardcover.

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