by David AbramsBuy on NOOK »
March 18, 2013
3How Should a Person Be?
One of the reasons I don’t review many books anymore is because I’ve come to realize that most of the criteria I use to evaluate them are really just my prejudices, stray bits of opinion splintered off from my intellectual proclivities, my stupefying lassitude, my in-earnest behavior, my own limitations as a writer. I can’t defend them and don’t want to. And as an author I know how hurtful negative judgments are, no matter how uninterested you should be in them in theory. Plus, in the end we are naturally more passionate about our creations than others’, and those we read doubtless feel the same way. Certainly, there are exceptions—smart, thorough critics on the order of James Wood or William Deresiewicz, to name but two; I think their work embodies a special kind of cultural heroism.
But then came a man with the improbable moniker of Rosecrans Baldwin, who caught me in a town in Texas after two drinks at something called a Literary Crawl, and a commitment was made that could not easily be undone—his feelings, his hard work, had to be considered now, too. So here goes…
I have before me two books that illustrate my point painfully (for me) well. In most senses of the word, Lauren Groff’s Arcadia is a better novel than Sheila Heti’s. With a range from the 1970s to 2018 (!), it certainly more fully attempts to fulfill the glorious potential of the form: 50 years of American culture, from the hippie movement to life in a globally warmed near-future world. It’s all seen through the eyes of a boy named Bit (for “Little Bit of a Hippie”) who gradually changes, learns, grows into adulthood. Bit is not Groff, not remotely, but exists in a small piece of the mental landscape from which Groff derives both subject and sustenance. His character on the page is the product of the spadework the honest novelist signs up to do, as is this epiphanic moment in the story: “They hurtle through life aging unimaginably fast, but each grasps a silken edge of memory that billows between them and softens the long fall.”
And that’s my problem with the book right there. I don’t recognize the truth of that sentence, not from my life nor my observation of anyone else’s. Memory has never cushioned me in that way. Maybe when I’m older? But how old?
Still there is an appealing, positive feel to Arcadia, in keeping with its meliorist message. Nice moments appear, nicely captured, such as this one: “Gingery Eden, her pregnant belly enormous, cracks a bottle of pop over the hood of the Blue Bus and rubs her back when she stands. The dazzle of her white teeth under her copper hair makes Bit want to dance.”
Up against Groff’s thoroughly written, plotted, thunk-on exploration of life as culture and personality is Canadian author Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?—I mean, it’s so slight there even seems to be a word missing in the title. Be what? How happy should a person be? How tall? And yet, and yet, this too is a novel, an anorectic version of Tolstoy’s great baggy monster, and I gotta say, with its narcissistic, being-single-in-Toronto-and-trying-to-find-myself tone, with its women-closer-to-other-women-than-to-the-men-they-date subtext, I really enjoyed it. I felt in it the truth of personality as it plays out in the world today (OK, plays out among circumstantially well-to-do Westerners with BAs and little apparent need to work for money). I may not have loved myself for loving it, but do you care? The story taunts you with how lifelike it is, just lifelike enough to make you alternately irritated with the author—whoops, I mean narrator—and in love with her as she marches through her minimal novelly paces. (You may remember this duality from Seinfeld.) The action of the book, such as it is, is that Sheila is trying to write a play, while her best friend Margaux is trying to make meaningful art. And while Margaux seems best at art, Sheila seems best at questioning why she should be an artist, a sporadic, offbeat interrogation through which she bravely—but OK, also predictably—has the courage to show her own lassitude and shameful proclivities, viz the fifth and sixth paragraphs of the book’s opening:
How should a person be? I sometimes wonder about it, and I can’t help answering like this: a celebrity. But for all that I love celebrities, I would never move somewhere that celebrities actually exist. My hope is to live a simple life, in a simple place, where there’s only one example of everything.
By a simple life, I mean a life of undying fame that I don’t have to participate in. I don’t want anything to change, except to be as famous as one can be, but without that changing anything. Everyone would know in their hearts that I am the most famous person alive—but not talk about it too much.
I’m not sure that what makes that sentence true is that we’ve all thought it, because we’ve all also thought much deeper things that wouldn’t work in its place. But it’s funny, and funny is underrated in fiction: Funny becomes the challenge and the redemptive mechanism of this book. The book showcases different kinds of funny, and “Interlude for Fucking” may be the best of all the chapters in this mode. It’s in the middle of the book but also the climax (duh), at once a parody of sexual surrender, an homage to the oblivion of intercourse, and a grief-stricken throwing up of the hands before a descent into relationship indifference. Sheila has met a bad boyfriend named Israel, whose treatment of the narrator is both demeaning and cause for rejoicing (isn’t being objectified part of the celebrity she seeks?), and she wants to share her joy with all the women of the world:
I don’t know why all of you just sit in libraries when you could be fucked by Israel. I don’t know why all of you are reading books when you could be getting reamed by Israel, spat on, beaten up against the headboard—with every jab, your head battered into the headboard. Why are you all reading? I don’t understand this reading business when there is so much fucking to be done….
What is there to be learned tonight when you could learn to suck Israel’s cock?
And so on.
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By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner
Kevin: OK, I’m going to confess something. I just didn’t get How Should a Person Be?
You and I discuss books a lot during the year, but we haven’t talked about this one for some reason. Maybe we should have. There’s a lot of overlap in our tastes (with frequent differences in degrees of appreciation) but Heti’s novel strikes me as more of a John book than a Kevin book.
I read the novel without knowing much at all about it, and my impression was—and here’s where I agree with Judge Max—that it was frequently funny, and often insightful. But I just didn’t buy it enough to really care. It felt so mannered and artificial. None of these characters seemed like real people. None of them had jobs that could sustain them, or even hobbies occupy them. Everything the characters did (Go to Miami! Go to New York! I’m going to tape you!) seemed to be motivated by the whim of the author alone.
I’m not always against artifice. The characters in May We Be Forgiven don’t feel real the way my neighbors do, but early on Homes got me to buy into her world and the odd people who inhabit it.
I never felt that with this novel. The dialogue doesn’t sound like people talking. Nothing much happens, and yet the characters spend page after page explaining it all to each other. They speak with a self-awareness that is beyond the grasp of any actual people I know, yet they act as if they have no self-awareness at all.
Like this part, where Sheila and Margaux are discussing their Miami hotel:
“Well, you went to the bathroom, and you saw this daddy longlegs there. And I was like, Do you want me to throw it out the window? But you said, No, let’s keep it. Spiders are good. I would have thrown it out, but you said let’s not, so we agreed that we just didn’t want it to wind up in our bed. We would keep our bathroom door closed the entire time. That way, the spider would stay in the bathroom and not crawl into our bed, which would be really disgusting.
“Anyway,” she went on, “pretty soon you started to like it. You developed feelings for it. Like, whenever you went to the bathroom, you would look for it, and when you spotted it you’d speak to it. Sometimes it was in the tub, sometimes it was on the ceiling sometimes it was sitting on the shower curtain. Then, after leaving the bathroom, you would say good-bye and close the door. You ended up becoming pretty affectionate with it.”
“It became like a pet,” I offered. “I remember that.”
“Not something you could control, but something you could love. But if it had left the bathroom and invaded the bedroom, you probably wouldn’t have liked it so much. But keeping it in the bathroom allowed you to love it. Keeping it in there was a sign that you loved it.”
“Then, on our last night there, we forgot to close the bathroom door—we were so drunk—and in the morning you woke up and it was beside your leg, and without even thinking, you smashed it under your hand.”
“I remember,” I said, uneasy.
“Well, that’s like you buying the same dress as me. I’m doing a lot, what with letting you tape me, but—boundaries, Sheila. We need them. They let you love someone. Otherwise you might kill them.”
I am going to give a pass to the fact that two grown women apparently are unaware that a daddy longlegs can crawl under a door if it wants. Harder for me to forgive is that this conversation takes place at all. People just do not describe in great detail to one other shared experiences from their recent past. Because the other would always say, I was there, dude, get to the point. That conversation (as well as many others) occurs not for Sheila-the-character’s, benefit, but for the reader’s. These characters felt like puppets to me, and I could always see the author’s lips moving.
(Not to workshop the novel, but to Heti’s credit I think this would have been a moving scene if it didn’t happen in dialogue. If the spider thing just happened, and nobody explained what it meant immediately afterward, I would have felt like I was actually being shown something about one of the characters, rather than just being told something about her.)
Still, Heti’s been publishing novels (and acclaimed ones at that) longer than I have, and I can tell from her prose that she knows what she’s doing, so I know I’m missing something, right? Looking for a guide, I sought out some very positive reviews, and I discovered many of the characters in this book are actual friends of the real Sheila Heti. And that the dialogue is supposed to be based on real conversations they had. And that the book (subtitled “A Novel From Life”) was apparently a product of Heti’s having tired of writing novels where things are made up.
I would like to do the right thing and judge this book on Heti’s terms, not mine. In yesterday’s match I said I hate knocking an author for writing a different book than the one I wanted her to write. But on Heti’s terms, this book makes even less sense to me. The more I read about it, the more confused I became about what she was trying to do.
I didn’t find it lifelike (to use Judge Max’s word) in the least. What’s wrong with me, John? Is Toronto so exotic? Could my experience with other human beings be so unlike Heti’s that her real experiences seem phony to me?
John: I came at this book from the other end of the spectrum, in that I knew far too much about it before I started reading, and what I’d heard made me think I wouldn’t care for it. I knew that a lot of it was based on the actual conversations of actual artist friends of Sheila Heti, and that didn’t sound good to me. I like writers and artists fine, and I’m a big fan of writing and art, but I prefer my writing and art, and the talking about writing and art, to be two separate things.
But you know what? I really enjoyed the book, whatever it is. I think it’s funny and also raw, and I swallowed it down in a couple of large gulps. I don’t even know why, since there’s no plot, the contest over who can create the ugliest painting being the only real tension looming over the entire narrative.
At The New Republic, Adam Kirsch lumps Heti in with other writers he labels the “new essayists” (David Sedaris, Sloane Crosley, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and our semifinal judge Davy Rothbart). He says that “the new essay is exclusively about the self, with the world serving only as a foil and an accessory, as a mere staging ground for the projection of the self.”
That seems about right to me. Even the title of How Should a Person Be? suggests a view where life is a kind of performance. The Sheila Heti of the novel is undergoing a search for a kind of genuine self, but she seems to want other people to recognize her for it, as though our selves are something we wear outside our bodies and project into the world.
It seems to be the kind of book that reflects the influence of reality television or social media. Who you are is who you appear to be to other people. How Should a Person Be? is about a Sheila Heti who lives her life in a world governed by the observer-expectancy effect.
It makes for an interesting read, though I don’t think I want to read a ton of books like it. It also seems like living life this way would be absolutely exhausting. It’s a funny book, but this gives it plenty of dark undertones.
I wonder if Heti’s method is what David Shields has in mind when he says we should ditch conventional novels and turn to these sorts of hybrid remixes.
Kevin: That actually helps. This is a case where my expectations were in a battle with the text, right? I was starting from a place where it was really difficult to put this novel in any kind of context, and I was led even further astray by the reviews I read of it. I was trying to follow directions on a GPS device that had the wrong coordinates for my car. If you look at Heti’s book as an attempt to take real people and conversations and then stylize them in a fictional (or meta-fictional, I suppose) way, I can get on board with that effort. It doesn’t get me to a point where I can say I love the book, but I think I can understand it from here.
John: I looked at How Should a Person Be? as the longest of shots, but here it gets past a beautifully written, very traditional work of literary fiction.
I chose Arcadia as this year’s entrant that I’d try to experience via audiobook. I’ve written in past years how I’m generally ill-suited to audiobooks, apparently being dreamy-headed when listening to someone else’s stories and lapsing into thinking about my own. (Maybe this is the remixing Shields is talking about.)
But I’ve found two activities that lend themselves to audiobook listening: jogging and vacuuming. Unfortunately, I don’t do either as often as I should, so after a month of listening I’m just under halfway done with Arcadia, and a good 12 pounds still above my goal weight.
I think it was a good choice for audio in that Groff’s writing is deeply sensual. She’s constantly telling me how things smell, taste, and feel. On the other hand, at least thus far, the novel seems to lack incident. I’ve experienced it as a series of beautiful little vignettes, with some small bits of story piling up. Whenever it’s time to go back, I’m pleased to be recast into Groff’s world, but it’s not pulling me by the collar down into the narrative.
I’m wondering how much of this is the audio format. I’m guessing that I’ve listened to about 150 pages’ worth, something I would’ve done in a couple of days under normal circumstances. The lack of incident may simply be a function of being forced to take the story in at the pace dictated by the narrator.
Even though it’s eliminated, and feels like a longshot for the Zombie, I’ll be listening to Arcadia until the end.
Kevin: I’ll admit my opinion about How Should a Person Be? was likely colored by my affection for Arcadia, and I’ll confess that even this opinion is not entirely objective. Lauren Groff grew up down the street from me. She is probably a decade younger, so it would have been Wes Anderson-movie weird if we had hung out back then, but I think I understand her the way any two people who grew up on the same street in the same small town do.
I enjoyed Lauren’s first novel, The Monsters of Templeton, a lot—it took place, after all, virtually in my parents’ front yard. But Arcadia seems like a big step forward from that earlier book. Her trippy, dreamlike prose perfectly captures the nostalgia we’re supposed to have for this imperfect utopia. You’re still listening, so I won’t ruin the bootlegger turn it makes at the end, but it was unexpected and, for me, just right. As a reader, I’m sorry to see it out.
But as a commentarian, it is exciting to see (what is for me) an upset in a tourney that has so far gone pretty much according to form. (I’m not really counting a victory by the über-popular John Green, even if he was a four-seed going up against a National Book Award winner.)
We have a little bit of business as the opening round comes to a close and we get ready for tomorrow’s quarterfinal match between The Fault in Our Stars and The Orphan Master’s Son: Today we get our first peek at the Zombie results.
For those who are new to this, several weeks ago we asked TMN readers and ToB fans to tell us what book was their favorite among the 18 novels on the shortlist. Those votes were counted, and once we narrow the field down to a pair, the two reader favorites from among those books eliminated in the tourney will rise again to take on the undefeated novels. The winners of those two matches will move on to the championship.
If the Zombie Round were held today, the two books that would fight their way back into the running—that is, the two most popular novels from those eliminated so far—would be Lauren Groff’s Arcadia and Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (in no particular order). That could change, of course, as more books get bounced from the bracket, and we will revisit those standings every day from here on out.
And before we wrap up the opening round entirely, John and I would like to invite ToB co-founder (and author/TMN editor) Rosecrans Baldwin to announce a fun contest.
Rosecrans: Hi everyone. Here’s the deal. We’ve got a one-day contest, with two prizes. To enter, leave a note in the comments below before 9 a.m. Eastern tomorrow, March 19, 2013, that contains:
- Which two (2) titles you think will make the Championship
- The winner and the final vote tally (out of 17)
So an entry could look like this: “Contest entry: In the Championship, Title One by Jane Doe v. Title Two by John Doe. Title 1 is the winner, 12-5.”
Only one entry per person. John and Kevin will announce the winner in the booth on the final day of the Tournament, March 29, 2013. If more than one person predicts correctly, we’ll choose randomly from that group. The winner will receive a brand-freaking-new NOOK HD+ e-reader from The Morning News. Whoever comes in second, we’ll send you a $25 gift card to Barnes & Noble.
Good luck. Long live the Rooster.