This Beloved Feminist Novel Is Just a Little Irritating

A column about life, culture, and politics.
July 6 2012 7:45 AM

Not Quite How a Person Should Be

Grow up, Sheila Heti!

Sheila Heti.
Sheila Heti, author of How Should a Person Be?

Photo by Sylvia Plachy Color.

There is something about Sheila Heti’s feverishly admired and fashionable new novel, How Should a Person Be, that I find both extremely irritating and extremely compelling, and I can’t help feeling that if I could pin down both responses I would have a clearer picture of the disappointments and aspirations of the current cultural moment, and its sort-of-young.

Katie Roiphe Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages and In Praise of Messy Lives.

One of my personal interests in Heti’s semidocumentary novel about a group of very appealing artist types in Toronto is that Heti’s Misha used to be my Misha. He was my closest friend in college, before he moved to Canada and became one of Heti’s closest friends. I don’t think this necessarily contributes to my complicated reaction to the book, but perhaps it’s lurking there somewhere (and I do know that she is not exaggerating the brilliance and wonderfulness of her friends).

One of the salient facts of Heti’s milieu, as James Wood pointed out in his much discussed New Yorker review, is the very young quality of the book’s philosophical speculations, the palpable feel of college students sitting on a roof marveling at the universe and their own bon mots, though Heti herself is 35. Here is a scene of Sheila waking up: “I untangle myself from the sheets and get up and go to the mirror to start my day. I produce a haughty, superior expression to intimidate myself into thinking I am cool, cooler than I am. I make my eyes as world-weary as possible, like a fashion model’s.” She also says to her friend Margaux at one point, “You know what? If we ever have kids, I really like the idea of trading babies.”

The perpetual, piquant childishness, the fetishizing and prolonging of an early 20s conversation about the Meaning of Life is central to both the book’s appeal and its annoyingness. Heti’s character is working in a hair salon and thinking a lot about art and how to be “the ideal human” while also hanging out with people so fascinating, including Misha, who is in his 40s, that she is recording their every word for posterity. 

The book has been compared to Lena Dunham’s Girls, and it is a little like the girls remained psychically 24 for another decade and had less of a sense of humor about themselves. Well, that’s not quite correct. Heti does have a sense of humor, but it is extremely curated; it is more like the performance of miraculous little moments of stylish self-consciousness, the psychological version of Zooey Deschanel twirling her vintage-y skirt: Every sentence is a little pose.

Heti does not bother to make herself likable, which is perhaps one of the admirable or brave things about the book, but people like her because she is voicing something that they seem to want voiced. She is articulating the entitled, impatient waiting for laurels that smart, educated, urban people in their 20s and 30s and even 40s seem to spend a lot of time doing, the feeling that the world should recognize your intelligence and extraordinariness and reward you for just being you. The feeling is that your coolness, your wryness, is enough, that you shouldn’t actually have to do anything for this admiration to come to you, that your art is in your stylish haphazard way of being. You can be very ambitious, and ironic about your ambition at the same very stylish moment. As Heti puts it: “Everyone would know in their hearts that I am the most famous person alive—but not talk about it too much. And for no one to be too interested in taking my picture, for they’d all carry around in their heads an image of me that was unchanging, startling, and magnetic.”

It’s hard to step back and analyze generational products, like this book or Miranda July’s, because they are so much a part of things. (As Heti puts it: “If everyone around me talks nothing but shit, how can I hold myself aloof?”) However, it occurs to me that what is maddening about the sentences is the cleverness in love with its own cleverness. The literary predecessors would be the members of Salinger’s Glass family, if they grew up to write books; the film version would be done by Wes Anderson: There is a preciousness, and very specific kind of ironic self-love and an exquisitely cool variety of cuteness involved, a potent mixture of narcissism and laziness and intelligence, which often manifests as charm.

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!

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