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.