Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? is an autobiographical record of writer’s block, capturing the alternate periods of self-questioning and self-mythologizing, the resolutions and the confessional purges. The book follows its first-person narrator, the newly-divorced writer ‘Sheila’, as she struggles with a commission from a feminist theatre company. The script does not have to be ‘a feminist play’ but it does have to be about women. It is here that Sheila falters: ‘I didn’t know anything about women!’
How Should a Person Be? is divided into five acts and the book gradually reveals itself as the fragmented guilty conscience of this never-written play. Early in Act 2, Sheila compulsively buys a tape recorder, falling for it as if for a new lover: ‘I wanted to touch every part of it, to understand how it worked.’ Sheila begins transcribing conversations with her best friend Margaux, a painter, and others. These transcriptions are rendered as dramatic dialogue, interrupting the prose with a hyper-real defiance. You want women? Here they are: a precise analogue.
Despite Sheila’s misgivings, How Should a Person Be? has a lot to say, in the end, about women. Sheila’s fraught relationship with the tape recorder’s technologically mediated realism simultaneously alleviates and stimulates her writer’s block. Discovering that Nietzsche wrote on a typewriter, she is deeply distressed: ‘Goddamnit, the man had no more connection to the truth than a stenographer!’ The stenographer, of course, is usually female, and the horror of Nietzsche-as-stenographer is linked to the terror of Nietzsche-as-woman. The irony of the book’s title lies in the fact that its big question – How should a person be? – is safer, for Sheila, than the question lurking behind it: How should an artist be? To pose the latter question is to risk claiming the identity of the ‘woman artist’ – a risky identity because women are (like Nietzsche) always open to the charge of being mere stenographers, as embarrassingly physical as the machines they work on.
If How Should a Person Be? acknowledges the weight of the male genius myth, it also carves a way out of it. Sheila muses in the prologue: ‘One good thing about being a woman is we haven’t too many examples yet of what a genius looks like. It could be me. There is no ideal model for how my mind should be.’ During a visit to a Miami art fair, Sheila and Margaux decide that in writing and in art ‘you have to know where the funny is’, and a conversation ensues about the funniness of a series of great male artists:
(laughs) How about Jackson Pollock?
I mean, all those guys are – I mean, one of them would have been enough for me.
The creative friendship shared by Sheila and Margaux is positioned against the heroic individuality of Rothko or Pollock, but this collaborative alternative to the icon alone before his canvas is not idealised. When Sheila buys the same dress as Margaux the latter sends her an email about boundaries, admitting ‘i really do need some of my own identity. and this is pretty simple and good for the head.’ They do not speak for several weeks. Later, Margaux suffers her own creative block in response to Sheila’s recordings. She mentions her fear of ‘my words floating separate from my body’ several times, but Sheila continues to tape and transcribe. When Sheila realises Margaux has stopped painting, she is consumed by guilt. She flees to New York, thinking their friendship is over. They eventually reunite – Margaux cries “Just because I was upset doesn’t mean it’s all over!” – but the question lingers: is collaborative ‘genius’ possible?
Not without a reformation of the work, suggests Heti. How Should a Person Be? is peppered with references to foundational models of male creativity, running all the way back to God himself: the emails transcribed throughout the book are numbered like Biblical verse. Heti’s use of email conversations has drawn comparisons with Ben Lerner, whose novel Leaving the Atocha Station features a scene in which a fatal drowning is described by a witness over Gchat. Heti, however, is less interested in the banality of email than she is in exploring it as the site of a new kind of anti-epic. This drive is echoed in a subplot that tracks a competition between Margaux and another friend, Sholem, to see who can create the ugliest painting. The competition is ultimately decided not by the paintings themselves but by a game of squash, on which the book closes. One onlooker observes, “I don’t think they even know the rules. I think they’re just slamming the ball around.” It is a statement that condenses the book’s playful spirit into a parable worthy of the Bible itself.