It’s hard for me to decide whether or not I liked this book. I think partly that’s because I don’t know exactly what it is. Is it autobiography or fiction or memoir or fantasy or love letter? I feel as if it is important to know if it is factual or invented, even though “factual” memoirs or autobiographies can easily contain lies or falsifications or dramatic enhancements. But for some reason, it really bothered me to not be able to tell where Heti was telling the true story, and where she made things up or altered them to be true to the story, if that makes sense.
This reads partly like the diary of a shallow young adult, and partly like a love letter from one friend to another (from Sheila Heti to Margaux), both of whom are embedded in a web of relationships with other artists and writers. Through anecdotes, personal reflections, emails, reminiscences, and conversations, Heti describes how she messed up the friendship, came to realise what she had done, and did the internal work required to address the effect of her actions on Margaux. In some ways this is beautifully contained within the context of the title question: How should a person be? The reader sees Heti-the-protagonist (as perhaps distinct from Heti-the-writer) move jaggedly through her search for the answer to this question, trying to emulate others whom she admires, trying to find a definitive answer to the question, and finally reaching the point of being introspective about it (rather than spinning around trying to find the answer outside herself).
Heti’s writing she switches among techniques (such as storytelling, transcribed conversations, and email text). Her emails always contained numbered sections, whether she was the sender or receiver. At first, I found this contrived and annoying, but after a while, I found that I was reading each numbered section more slowly, and considering it more independently. This slowing down may or may not have been Heti’s intention, but it worked for me.
Some parts of the story made me squirm. If all the incidents are factual (rather than dramatised or metaphorical), Heti has shown a vulnerable courage in exposing her mistakes, adventures, thoughts, and actions. There were places where I felt uncomfortably embarrassed by how much she exposed of herself, especially regarding her selfishness and thoughtlessness. Heti-the-protagonist struck me as both insecure and egotistical, and that mix was as off-putting on the page as it is in real life. I actually took a break from the book because it felt a bit like reading an angsty teenage diary in which the diarist rambles on about “does he like me? is she mad at me?” But I am glad I went back to it, because as the book went on, Heti-the-protagonist underwent some internal changes.
I was reasonably satisfied with how the book ended. It wasn’t a big dramatic wrap-up, nor was it a mere continuation of what went before with a fizzle on the last page. Instead, there was some internal and external resolution. In a sense, it felt like Heti-the-protagonist grew up a bit and reached a new stage in her understanding of herself and her relationships.
I liked the unconventional writing and the friendship between Heti-the-protagonist and her friend Margaux, but I will not read this book again. There were parts that made me feel squicky. In particular, there is one relationship with a man that lasts for a while in the book, and contains themes of degradation, obedience, and humiliation. That is something really hard for me to visit (especially unprepared), so I felt kind of ambushed. Also, the self-absorption of not only Heti-the-protagonist but also some of her friends is a recurring irritant. If you keep that content warning in mind, it’s an interesting experiment.
How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti