How Should a Person Be?, By Sheila Heti Harvill Secker £16.99
My, what a beautiful navel I have
Is it fiction? Memoir? A half-arsed play? The Canadian writer Sheila Heti doesn't make clear exactly how much of this supremely self-indulgent book is taken from real life. It tells a fragmentary first-person story of recently divorced twenty-something Sheila – trying to write a play; failing – and her friend Margaux, an artist. Lauded across the Atlantic for her meta-fictional experimentation, Heti has been tagged with that fateful label "voice of a generation"; British readers may find that it speaks to them less.
It features much vague philosophical musing about how to live, how to be a beautiful person, and how to create art, but there's little plot. Sheila forms a vital friendship, gets a job in a hair salon, talks to her Jungian analyst, drinks, and has fantastic (and fantastically rude) sex. She starts recording her conversations: transcriptions, emails and letters form much of the text. Call it reconstructed reality, or experimentation for the Facebook generation – as knowingly narcissistic as uploading snaps of yourself, with camera-phone held at an attractive angle.
Examples: "I just did my ugly painting, and I feel like I raped myself." "I have more respect for your art than I do for my own fears." "If I want my life to be a work of art, then if I make bad work, it tarnishes my life." I mean, really – who talks like this?
It is impossible to tell what is real and what is fiction – but knowing that it is even partly taken from real life makes the navel-gazing somehow less forgivable. How Should a Person Be? is already equated with another solipsistic, semi-autobiographical outing, Girls, but that TV show is hilarious; this is practically po-faced by comparison.
Heti does, however, anticipate the charge of narrow narcissism. Two even more pretentious theatre-makers come to dinner; they visited Africa in search of a "profound" experience because being well-off white male playwrights was too "narcissistic … involved in one's own mind". Sheila points out that "all art is like that" – at least Sheila is unabashed about her self-absorption.
Heti is also admirably unbothered about coming off well. The obsession throughout with what it means to be beautiful really boils down to her own fear that she is inherently an ugly person, lacking a soul, "something wrong inside". There are unsettling, uncomfortable scenes which should be easy to dismiss as teenager-ish attempts to shock, but they tear off the page, her lack of self-censorship giving the prose an irrefutable force.
Reading How Should a Person Be? is like listening in to someone gossip on public transport. You both groan inwardly and strain to catch the next revelation. It is frequently maddening – I don't often find myself actually rolling my eyes at a book – but also terribly compelling.
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Al Pacino on suffering from depression: 'It can last and it's terrifying'
- 2 Half of young women unable to ‘locate vagina’ and 65% find it difficult to say the word
- 3 Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb
- 4 A teacher speaks out: 'I'm effectively being forced out of a career that I wanted to love'
- 5 Mexican woman becomes world’s 'oldest person' at 127
Jessica Chastain demands Scarlett Johansson-fronted Marvel superhero movie
Downton Abbey series 5 start date revealed: ITV drama to return in late September
Nicki Minaj suffers wardrobe malfunction during MTV VMAs performance with Ariana Grande and Jessie J
New Netflix releases: Films and TV shows coming in September 2014
Best movies on Netflix UK and US: 32 films that will end your endless scrolling
Rotherham child sex abuse scandal: Labour Home Office to be probed over what Tony Blair's government knew - and when
What do immigrants really think of Britain? Polish immigrant's Reddit post goes viral
Ashya King: Parents of five-year-old boy refused permission to visit him in hospital and denied bail at Spanish court
With Douglas Carswell joining Ukip, my party has taken another giant step forward
When elitism grips the top of British society to this extent, there is only one answer: abolish private schools
Ukip Douglas Carswell defection: Tory MP jumps ship to join Nigel Farage