Have you ever watched the television show Girls written by and starring Lena Dunham? If you have and if you like the show, you will like Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be. It is like Girls in a book. According to a review in the Sunday New York Times, the reviewer felt the same. He even quotes Dunham saying that Heti is one of her favorite authors. Heti herself said she modeled the book after an MTV reality show called The Hills. Having never seen that program, I can’t remark on any similarity.
What I can remark on is how there seems to be a certain tone and persona that young female novelists have in common. Heti has it, Offil has it in Department of Speculation and Kushner has it in The Flamethrowers. Young, smart woman, fairly self-aware but a bit lost for some reason, looking for something, she is not always sure what. There is a wry sense of humor, the story has something to do with art or artists in some way, there is growth in the protagonist but one is not sure just how much, and the ending is rather open-ended giving you to understand that the story continues but the book does not. Does this count as a trend or just a coincidence? Or is this just the common experience of what it is like to be a young woman in 2014? I’m not certain since I am wandering in the desert known as middle age where I am neither young nor old.
The book is a “novel from life” whatever that means. The narrator and person trying to figure out how a person should be is named Sheila. Most of the characters in the book have the same name and occupation of friends of the real life Sheila. And many of the conversations between Sheila and her best friend, Margaux, are copied from actual conversations they had in real life. In the book Sheila starts recording their conversations in an effort to discover the mystery of what it means to be Margaux and in the process figure out what it means to be Sheila.
In the novel Sheila is writing a play commissioned by a feminist group. She has been working on it for two years and is getting nowhere with it. The problem, with the play and with Sheila, is that she wants both to be a work of art. She believes she has a destiny and she wants her play to be so good it brings some kind of salvation to the masses. But while she wants to be god-like in this respect, she, at the same time, worries that she is not human, worries that somehow she is missing out on what it means to be human. She flip-flops back and forth worried she can’t fulfill her destiny, worried she is just like everyone else, worried that she isn’t like everyone else.
Such worrying could get old fast but somehow it doesn’t. Sheila worries about not being human but that worry itself reveals just how human she is, she just can’t see it. Eventually she figures out a few things.
The novel has no real plot. Things happen but they don’t especially pull the narrative along. The one event that does is a an almost friendship ruining argument she has with Margaux brought on by Sheila buying the same dress Margaux does when they are at an art festival in Miami where some of Margaux’s paintings are being shown. The argument is sparked by the dress, but of course it isn’t really about the dress at all.
There is also an ugly painting contest between Margaux and their friend Sholem. Which of them can paint the ugliest painting? Sholem ends up in a rather depressed place after completing his painting but this not being a tragedy kind of book, his situation is darkly funny and he is eventually brought back to a sunnier frame of mind.
How Should a Person Be? is well written, kind of quirky, sometimes grim, and occasionally uncomfortable. It has an honest quality about it. The pacing is perfect, it never bogs down even with the lack of plot. I’m not entirely sure how Heti manages to make it all work but she does.