In How Should a Person Be? (Henry Holt, 306 pages, $16.50), the narrator, Sheila, not yet 30 and fresh from a failed marriage, struggles to write a play about women as she drifts lethargically among her circle of equally lethargic, struggling artist friends.
The author, Toronto-based Sheila Heti, is both the subject and writer of this story. But in an interview with Torontoist, Heti says her deeply introspective novel, while not entirely fiction, cannot be called a memoir, either. She insists instead her book represents some undiscovered genre that exists between the two. Flouting convention, it seems, is a theme in her life and art.
Whatever the genre, this book is character-driven, not plot-driven, and Heti excels at developing a cast of engaging, colorful and flawed characters. Sheila is deeply self-involved, often weak and entirely believable as a recent divorcée and blocked-up playwright. The supporting cast receives just as much depth and detail. At the center of the novel is Sheila's friendship with successful painter Margaux, and their relationship lightens what could otherwise be a depressing read.
Though Heti explores most intimately a relationship between women, as implied by the title, the themes apply to men as well. This titular question is also indicative of the novel's overall tone. While most art asks "how ought we to live?" in one way or another, most leave it in the background. Subtlety, however, is not Heti's goal, and her novel boldly declares its purpose on every page.
While this blunt introspection is exciting at first—a number of passages stand out as particularly refreshing—the unfiltered narcissism becomes a bit much after 30 pages. The novel is saved from existential ridiculousness by the fact that Heti does not shy away from addressing those very tendencies. Her characters are acutely, almost painfully, aware of their own limitations and contradictions. The result is an honest, if somewhat self-centered, reflection on life.
GO: Sheila Heti will read at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., on Monday, June 25. 7:30 pm. Free.