Sheila Heti’s brand new* How Should A Person Be? is a charming – and very contemporary – autobiographical novel detailing a protagonist’s search for a self-found and self-realised identity. Similar in tone to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Min Kamp, it is honest, frank and open, but much more accessible, more sociable and – one feels self-consciously – cooler than my favourite Norwegian self-exploratory epic.
Desperation for an identity, for a framework, for an I, fills every page. How should Sheila be? Like the people she likes? Like the people she likes would like her to be? Like Israel, “the sexiest guy in Toronto”, wants her to be? How the feminist theatre company that has commissioned her to write a play want her to be? Should she be drunk, stoned, wired? Celibate, fucking, sucking? In a different city, in a different job? Heti asks herself question after question, questions every act, rescinds most decisions… The only constant is her friendship with Margaux, an artist, whose emails and conversation the novel contains, verbatim, thanks to Heti’s odd habit of recording most social encounters.
The fractious nature of the text – relatively blunt prose, punctuated by dialogue displayed as a screenplay, and emails numerated by sentence – provides an enjoyably varied reading experience. The philosophising never comes across as pretentious; the search for a self, the drug use, the emotionless sex, none come across as “angsty”, they come across as an accurate reflection of modern life. Heti knows what she likes, but doesn’t necessarily know what she wants, and crucially does not know “how to be”. A good, accessible, introspective text. My kind of thing.
* Well, originally published in Canada in 2010. (It has been edited again since.)