Sheila Heti Asks How Should A Person Be?, Doesn’t Quite Answer Question

The acclaimed debut novel of Sheila Heti, How Should A Person Be? asks a bold, sweeping question that never really gets answered by the time you’re done reading the book. Although this is not Heti’s first literary work (she previously released a collection of short stories called The Middle Stories, as well as a novella called Ticknor), Heti is perhaps delving into a philosophical examination that she isn’t quite prepared to see all the way through.

Heti, amid books
Heti, amid books
Told in an experimental format reminiscent of a playwriting style (Heti was originally going to pursue this medium), Heti tells the not so epic tale of her friendship with artist Margaux Williamson and the ways in which Heti fucks up the rapport with her general neuroses and weirdnesses. But, of course, the book is about so much more than that. With chapter titles like What Is Empathy? and What Is Love?, Heti attempts to explore the meaning of life and the central emotions associated with it in an organic way. With relatable queries like, “How could I castrate my mind–neuter it!–and build up a resistance to know what was mine from what was everyone else’s, and finally be in the world in my own way?,” Heti easily resonates with her readers. However, at times, we seek more than just questions from her. We want answers, too.
German cover for How Should a Person Be?--way existential
German cover for How Should a Person Be?–way existential
At one point in the novel, after a failed go at fleeing to New York, Heti states, “I tried my best to remain silent and not ask myself any questions.” This is somewhat ironic as this is all Heti seems capable of doing throughout the entirety of How Should A Person Be?. Her sole gift in this particular work, one might argue, is posing difficult questions without ever finding a way to reply to them. And while yes, one should allow room for a reader to make his or her own conclusions, there should be at least some level of guidance from the author. This Heti cannot do. Thus, it leaves one to wonder if this novel–so lauded and revered upon its 2010 release–will be viewed with such respect decades from now, when Heti’s readers are still not getting the answers they seek from a book with such a grandiose title to live up to. It’s interesting to note as well that subsequent works from Heti have all been collaborative, namely The Chairs Are Where the People Go and Women in Clothes. Could it be possible that she knows she isn’t ready to take on intense topics by herself yet? To respond to the question, probably. And so, let’s hope her next solo authorial work is titled in sentence rather than query form.

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