Monday, February 2, 2015

Thoughts on How Should a Person Be

I've been sticking to my new "strategy" AKA resolution to use the library more, and as such I've been reading a lot. This is all good except for the sad fact that I have to return the books to the library when I'm done with them. I'm especially sad to part with How Not to Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg (featured in my "How Writers Read" series), which I kind of never wanted to end. Super-recommended IF YOU LOVE LEARNING.


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?

12 comments:

  1. It didn't strike me as "ironical cock worship" when I read that passage (though it also didn't strike me as "sexy"). I mean, she really does degrade herself for this man, and she even seems aroused by his disregard for her sexual choices (doesn't he say something like, "*I* decide whether you're staying celibate" or something gross like that?). When I read it I thought its view of what turns women on is very bleak. I guess it could be irony, but if it doesn't turn her on, then why does she do all the humiliating things he asks her to?

    My other problem with the book is that the narrator is extremely self-involved from start to finish. If you think of it as a description of exactly how a person should NOT be it becomes a more interesting and maybe meaningful book, I think.

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    1. The tone of that paragraph I quote is absolutely ironical; that is not to say that the character isn't genuinely turned on by the guy. Those two things are not in conflict. She was turned on, and then later, reporting on it, she's got some ironic distance and self-deprecation going on.

      Agree; she is incredibly self-involved. I didn't see that as a problem in and of itself and I don't take the title literally (as in, this book is how a person should be). I'm basically OK with narcissism as long as there's some awareness around it. For example I thought the self-awareness of the narcissist narrator of Leaving the Atocha Station was funny, but in 10:04 it had become self-aggrandizing.

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    2. Yeah, all I can say is that it didn't seem ironic to me when I read the book. I mean, yeah, a little overstated, but I thought it was a fairly faithful reproduction of the narrator's actual thoughts.

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    3. I mean, an author of books is posing as though she values "getting reamed" over literature ... I think it's ironic. Not that she (the character, whatever) wasn't sincerely more interested in the sex than books at the time, but I don't think she truly thinks getting fucked (by this one guy!) is a better experience (for everyone! all the time!) than reading. I can't believe this is even in question?

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    4. Yeah, I mean, however seriously you take this particular passage, I find the overall sexual dynamic really depressing.

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    5. It's supposed to be depressing! Don't you think? I think the idea is that she "sold out" too quickly to this sexy svengali asshole when she should have been working on her book.

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  2. Also for what it's worth, I thought James Wood had a reasonably good review in the New Yorker.

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    1. Hm. I kind of take issue with his apparent prejudice against the book due to its having what he sees as a "religiously important question" for a title. Also I'm tired of men calling books by women "messy" -- see Heroines.

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  3. Going into a book without giving credence to the hype (or the back cover) is always a good idea, I think. (And though I liked this book well enough the first time, I'm curious to read it again, thanks to this post.)

    I do agree with your points about the sex, especially the reductive lameness of resorting to "sexy" as a blurb for any book by a woman with sex in it. I'm embarrassed on behalf of those guys.

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    1. I see it ALL THE TIME and it's so annoying.

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    2. I also agree that July's statement is an overreach... But does this mean it'll be another three years before you read *her* book? ;)

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    3. Ha ha. It's not like I read every book published, but three years late. I'm just reading what grabs me as it grabs me.

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