There are two basic types of books that intentionally play around with genre and categorization: those that muddy the waters for literary purposes, and those for purely financial ones. Are you trying to make an artistic point about how arbitrary and misleading our systems of taxonomy are? Or are you just trying to pass off the kind of book you wrote as that which you wish you’d written, siphoning some of that other genre’s virtues in the process?
A prime example of the latter is someone like James Frey, who, after failing to sell his novel A Million Little Pieces, rebranded itas a memoir and tried again, with far better luck (obviously). The book became a runaway success—until Frey was ceremoniously depantsed by Oprah in 2006.
But don’t let these charlatans sour you on the whole idea of blurring the line between truth and fiction. When done for the right reasons, this kind of writing can be provocative and almost thrillingly alive—you tiptoe from page to page, feeling at any minute as though the ground might give way beneath you. When the truth of everything is uncertain, you can’t take anything for granted.
Sheila Heti’s new novel, How Should a Person Be?, is, happily, the noble type of genre muddle. It follows a Toronto-based writer named Sheila as she struggles in all kinds of ways: to finish writing a play, to maintain and sometimes repair her social relationships, and to find a way to live properly—to find out how a person should be in the world.
“I noticed the way people dressed,” Sheila says in the opening pages, “the way they treated their lovers—in everyone, there was something to admire. You can admire anyone for being themselves. It’s hard not to, when everyone’s so good at it.” The trouble, of course, is that there are billions of prototypes to choose from, and most of them tend to contradict one another. Sheila dryly imagines a future for herself living “a simple life, in a simple place, where there’s only one example of everything.”
How Should a Person Be? is demanding and accessible at the same time, not to mention utterly beguiling. You want to rattle around inside the real-life Heti’s head long after the pages go blank. I imagine this book will net her a disproportionate number of new Facebook friends and followers on Twitter. But, once again, that nagging question rears its head: Is it real?
Honestly, I’m not all that interested in the answer. The ambiguity is the thing. It’s exciting, in almost a voyeuristic sense, to know that Heti might be using this thinnest of fictional veils to confess so many intimate details—among them stuff about sex and blowjobs, but also far more elemental neuroses, such as her fear that she’s the least accomplished person in her group of friends. A bevy of found materials, including taped conversations and emails reprinted in their entirety, dare the reader into assuming it’s all culled straight from Heti’s inbox and filing cabinet. Then again, you can’t quite make that assumption, can you? It’s in the fiction section, after all…
All of this constant head-scratching is a useful exercise, though, because it leads to the same road Sheila wanders along—in search of selfhood, and a sturdy identity that won’t blow away at the first breeze. The book’s biggest shortcoming, as it were, is that this road turns out to be a cul-de-sac. Coming out of it, I felt like my brains were ten times further scrambled than they were going in. (Though part of that was probably just separation anxiety at leaving Heti’s shrewd inner monologue behind.)
Or maybe the problem really lays in our unconscious expectation that a character’s quest for such huge answers will come so easily to fruition. Life tends to be a life-long project, and the fact is that big, symbolic gestures—taking an all-night bus ride to New York, trying to reinvent one’s self overnight as a hair stylist—don’t always fix our problems as tidily as we might hope.
In that sense, How Should a Person Be? emerges as part of an entirely different genre: the realistic self-help book. You might not want to follow in Sheila’s footsteps, but tagging along on her quixotic mission will be as useful as anything else you’re likely to read this year.
Or, as she explained in an email when I asked her about all of this, “[A self-help book] doesn’t end when you finish reading it. That’s when it begins; when you begin to live differently as a result of having read it.”
House of Anansi, 288 pp, $29.95, hardcoverOct 27, 2010