On Saturday, I started and finished How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti. I tweeted a little about it and got lots of "engagement" because, clearly, this is a book that a lot of people have read and have strong feelings about, one way or the other. So I thought I'd share some thoughts here (I ain't got the time nor inclination to organize these into a real essay, sorry):
1. Much has been made of the supposed formal innovation of this "novel from life." Miranda July, for example, called it a "new kind of book." Meh. How is this a new kind of book? It's metafiction or it's a fictionalized memoir with some hybrid-y bits (lyric essay, play dialogue, etc.). Are we all in agreement that none of this is new? Great, we agree. (Similar memoir that I don't recall being hailed as a new kind of book: Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn. I guess we've experienced hybridity inflation in the last ten years.)
2. It's to the book's credit that it's entirely possible to read it without constantly being reminded that you're reading something HYBRID and INNOVATIVE and AMBITIOUS. If you ignore all the jacket copy and hype surrounding it, HSAPB is really just a fun read. I could easily compare it to the other two books I recently finished in one day (each): The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker and Think Like a Freak (by those Freakonomics guys). All three books are quite smart, but they're also constructed to go down like candy. They're like healthy candy; you'll think while you're reading them but not too hard. You won't need to take breaks to re-examine your life choices or place in the cosmos.
3. Let's compare/contrast with some recent books that absolutely insist you read them as highly ambitious novelty objects: Reality Hunger and 10:04. I enjoyed these books in real time, but the more time that goes by since I read them, the more distaste I feel for them. (Incidentally, the same thing happened to me with White Teeth.) Reality Hunger is interesting throughout, but why does it have to be so gimmicky? (And all the interesting ideas are borrowed anyway.) And 10:04 seemed designed so that the reviews would write themselves; accordingly every review I read sounded exactly the same and quoted all the same lines. God, how boring!
4. A note on the sex in HSAPB: It's a perfect example of a book that gets called "sexy" in the reviews/blurbs just because the author is an attractive young woman and it includes some sex. The sex in here is absolutely not sexy; it's over-the-deep-end absurd, funny but quite grim:
I don't know why all of you just sit in libraries when you could be fucked by Israel. I don't know why all of you are reading books when you could be getting reamed by Israel, spat on, beaten up against the headboard---with every jab, your head battered into the headboard. Why are you all reading? I don't understand this reading business when there is so much fucking to be done. [...] I don't see what you're getting so excited about, snuggling in with your book, you little bookworms, when instead Israel could be stuffing his cock into you and teaching you a lesson, pulling down your arms, adjusting your face so he can see it, stuffing your hand in your mouth, and fucking your brains right out of your head.
I grant that men might find all this ironical cock worship sexy (of course you do!!!) but that's the point: you obviously find all sex sexy, so describing a book with sex in it as "sexy" is redundant by your standards. It's also demeaning and feels like a way of complimenting the author instead of talking about the book. Dig deeper, assholes.
5. If you look at the "character arc" (someone told me "Sheila" in the book is not Sheila Heti but isn't this true of any autobiographical work?) it kind of goes like this: "I am an empty shell of a person ...... but in my narcissism I want to be recognized as incredibly special, a genius ....... but I also want to be good, how can I be good? my friends are good ........ I will try to be good like my friends ........... I have failed, I am a waste and a fraud .......... but wait, my friends tell me I am good and smart and interesting ......... and if my friends are good ...... maybe I really am special after all!" So yeah if you just look at that it sounds like a really annoying book. But it wasn't, to me. Despite Sheila's being an "unlikeable character" I found it charming and fun to read. YMMV.
Have you read How Should a Person Be? What did you think?