BOOK: Every life is a story, so why bother inventing a story for a work of fiction? Sheila Heti didn't bother, at least not much. Her nearly plotless novel, How Should a Person Be?, is about a young woman named Sheila who lives in Toronto, where Heti lives, and hangs out with an artist named Margaux (the author is good friends with Canadian artist Margaux Williamson.) Sheila is working on a play (Heti has written plays), and chunks of the script appear in the book. Heti also includes verbatim transcripts of emails from Margaux (the real-life Margaux), and ponders philosophical issues about empathy and freedom with as much sophomoric intensity as the title question.
The Sheila character yearns to be a brilliant artist. "One good thing about being a woman is we haven't too many examples yet of what a genius looks like," she says. "It could be me." She's also painfully self-obsessed with her own daily performance. After a swim in a hotel pool with Margaux during a trip to Miami, Sheila makes this wince-inducing comment: "I'm so happy with how we were making everyone jealous with how happy we were in the pool!" The novel resembles a TV reality show in its focus on the mundane details of daily life.
WHY READ? Heti does not seem the least bit embarrassed that she wrote much of her "novel" by transcribing her own life. The book's subtitle, after all, is "A Novel From Life." The Sheila in the novel even buys a tape recorder so she can record conversations with Margaux and other friends, which she then transcribes — presumably to put in the novel. The plot seems almost willfully banal, the characters remain as ordinary as real people, and the prose seems oddly flat and reportorial. The only real crisis comes when Sheila, on an impulse, buys the same yellow dress as Margaux. "Boundaries, Sheila," Margaux warns, obviously miffed. "We need them. They let you love someone. Otherwise you might kill them." Yet there's something oddly engaging about this whole exercise. The transcribed conversations with Margaux fascinate with their sheer innocuousness. Heti's indifference to plot and character development might seem like artistic anarchy, or a middle finger extended toward the very idea of fiction, but the book, despite its languid pace and indifferent prose, retains a solid hold on the attention, and offers the same sort of naughty pleasure provided by eavesdropping on a cellphone conversation.
MAKE IT: Since fiction and fact make such an incongruous combination in How Should a Person Be?, a discussion of the book seems to demand an incongruous combination of flavors, such as peanut butter and bacon, adapted from a recipe in the Toronto Star. Sounds unappealing, but like Heti's novel, the concoction, with its irresistible blend, turns out to be much better than it sounds.
MIX IT: At a Toronto restaurant, Sheila orders a Campari and soda while performing a lewd stunt suggested to her in an email sent by her boyfriend, so toasting her with this classic cocktail might be an appropriate gesture. But maybe a Canadian Club and soda — or Canada Dry — would work as well.
Tom Valeo, special to the Times
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