Not Quite How a Person Should Be
Grow up, Sheila Heti!
The fact that Heti is aware of and ironizing these qualities does not actually make them any less repellent, and it could be argued that transposing Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan’s values, as she claims to be doing, onto an intelligent hipster, does not redeem their callowness, and rather enhances it and makes it even more repellent.
Heti’s prose is the performance of precocity; only we are talking about a 35-year-old writer, so the precocious child is more like a favorite pose. The piquant childishness, the promise of a kind of everlasting intelligent adolescent promise, is something we love and seem to crave, and yet there may be something painful or comic or depressing in our appetite for it. A huge number of us seem to be staving off the idea that, like it or not, at a certain point we have crossed over from precocious children into stuck adults.
The Sheila character likes to think about herself as a “genius,” and Sheila Heti seems to think a lot about geniuses too. From a feminist point of view one could argue that it is heartening to see a woman be as vain and self-serious about “creating art” as a man (and to be sure to mock that self-seriousness with just enough self-conscious satire to make herself palatable to the age in which she writes). And of course the idea of fame or cleverness burns brighter here than the idea of art: It’s sort of the Great North American novel for the Facebook era. Heti puts it this way: “If I do succeed in turning myself into an idol it will not have been for nothing.” This is a fame without effort, fame without doing anything but having brunch with your friends. She writes about deciding to come to New York: “There, the odds of meeting someone Important, and thus becoming Important myself, were best.” It’s a kind of ambition both accessible and unthreatening, the coolness of Sheila Heti, it’s something you don’t need actual writing talent to aspire to, you just kind of have to “be.”
To be clear: I am all in favor of creating art and taking that creation seriously, but it does seem that in order to do so, you have to actually create the art, rather than just convey the hanging out. (Heti does an excellent job of documenting the aspiration, but the book itself falls shy of being a great, or even really a very good novel because of a shallowness and self-consciousness all the way through. )
At one point Sheila and Margaux go swimming in a pool in Miami. Sheila says:
“I’m so happy with how we were making everyone jealous with how happy we were in the pool!”
For me, this vignette captures what’s irritating and fundamentally false feeling about the book. The elaborate, perpetual performance in front of the imagined jealous audience is exhausting and ultimately drains this book of its potentially more interesting life force or examination. The reader can’t help thinking to herself at that point: Just swim, Sheila Heti! Just swim!
Katie Roiphe, professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, is the author most recently of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages, and the forthcoming In Praise of Messy Lives.