How Should a Person Be? A Novel From Life by Shelia Heti
When this book came out, there was a lot of talk about it, so I put it on my list. People were saying how it’s a book about female friendship and the struggle to produce art, topics which certainly appeal to me. A lot of people didn’t like it and called it navel-gazing, and others responded to that criticism with accusations of sexism: “You’d like it if it were a man doing the navel-gazing.” Because I know where I generally stand on those debates, I was fully prepared to like and enjoy this book, and was disappointed when I didn’t so much. It wasn’t because female friendship is boring or because a woman writing about her own life is objectionable to me (obviously), but just because I guess I didn’t like the particular things Heti had to say about her life, or the way she said them. Heti (or her character) divorces her husband for reasons I didn’t understand (I didn’t understand why she married him either), and has a relationship with a creepy guy who likes to make sex as degrading for his partners as possible. It takes her way too long to dump him. She moves from Toronto to New York because statistically it seems more likely she’ll make her way into the canon if she’s there. The story (not that there’s much plot) is framed by an “ugly painting” contest that Heti’s friends participate in. Heti’s friend Margeaux is a central figure, and the effect both have on each others’ art is a key question.
I’d compare Heti to Lena Dunham in that they’re both privileged white women making art and focusing on relationships between women. Both also explore relationships with men that are at least borderline exploitative or abusive. Dunham is a decade younger, a lot funnier, and has some important things to say about date rape, women’s bodies and representation, while Heti is more esoteric and existential, and less concerned with social justice. I’m between the two in age, but I think I prefer Dunham.