How Should a Person Be? By Sheila Heti Harvill Secker, £16.99
How should a person be? Well, ideally not as self-absorbed as the Canadian author Sheila Heti, whose raw, confessional novel-from-life caused a minor stir when it was published in North America earlier this year. (It will be published here next month.) It’s a mixture of fact, fiction, conversations and emails, in the cut-and-paste style championed by David Shields in his manifesto, Reality Hunger.
The narrator, a young writer just out of a shortlived marriage, is adrift in bohemian Toronto and trying to figure out what to do with her life. She is full of angst. She is also searingly honest about her faults and foibles, including her humiliating submission, emotional and sexual, to a handsome narcissist called Israel.
The main thread, though, is a chronicle of her friendship with an artist, Margaux (Heti’s real-life friend Margaux Williamson), and the book is dedicated to her. Again, Heti is ruthless here in her depiction of her own shortcomings; self-abasement is her default mode.
There is a lot – an awful lot – of discussion of the meaning of life and art, and hipsters sitting around pretty cafes saying clever things. All very First World. There is no plot, no conventional narrative arc, which frankly is a blessed relief (Shields had a point), but there is an emotional arc, just a slight one; the narrator does make some progress.
There’s something endearing as well as disquieting about Heti’s willingness to exploit her own vulnerability, in the way Tracy Emin does in her art. You are fascinated, repelled and concerned for her all at the same time. She said in an online interview: “With How Should a Person Be?, I could say whatever I wanted because it wasn’t really me, Sheila, it was a character.”
Maybe she should have changed the name.
The book has drawn comparisons with the hit TV series Girls, another chronicle in which degrading sex features frequently.There are so few credible portrayals of young women’s experience that they inevitably get compared with one another.
Heti has also been compared to Zadie Smith. I was hoping for a new-generation Douglas Copeland, but she is not the equal of either writer, at least not yet. Still, despite being hard work, her book has a freshness and verve that make you wonder where she will go next.