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Sheila Heti - How Should A Person Be?

How Should a Person Be?"My hope is to live a simple life in a simple place, where there is 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." 
This is from How should a person be? by Sheila Heti, a canadian author from Toronto - Right the moment, when I started to read this book, I knew, that I would love it and wanted to underline pretty much every other sentence, because like the above quoted, it expresses pretty much my view on things

This book is funny, truthful, a little crazy and very intimate. So while reading it, I constantly felt I was having a conversation with one of my very best girlfriends, and we got a little drunk and smoked much too many cigarettes and at 3 a.m. discovered, we just smoked our last cigarette, which lead to a frantic search of the apartment for an old package, forgotten in some bag or, until we had 4 Deutschmarks (I mean, this book feels like, there should still be Deutschmarks!)  and ran into the night to look for an open store to get more cigarettes. Which was not such a big problem, this being Berlin and all. What  a relief! So we go back and smoke and open another bottle of wine and we talk until 5 a.m. about EVERYTHING. Yeah, this is, how this book feels. It makes me happy. It makes me feel at home and whole, though a little crazy, but thats o.k. You are supposed to be a little crazy with your best girlfriend.


Its a book about the search for how a person should be and how one should live ones life. It consists of dialogue, conversations and an inner monologue, but also emails. The dialogue and the conversations are transcripts from actual, taped conversations with mainly her friends. who are named Sholem, Margaux and Misha, which are the names of Sheila Hetis real life friends. So the novel is mostly taken from Sheila Heti's real life. 
One of my favourite dialogues though happens in New York, where she goes to for a short while to escape her life in Toronto, but also, because she looked at a list of cities with famous artists, and the most famous artists had been living in New York (30), as opposed to, for example Düsseldorf, where only 4 had been living, one of whom for sure has been Joseph Beuys. So she figured, her chances for fame were best in New York.
There she enters a copy shop, looking for stationary, stamps and stuff. The owner of the copy shop is named Solomon and they start a conversation about Jewish Histoy, the Egyptians and other important subjects::
" Solomon: "-----thinking is a very complex thing. Thinking is something that is not done anymore. You understand? Thinking is something that is not done anymore, because we've stopped thinking, because if people were thinking, we wouldn't have gotten ourselves into the trouble we have gotten ourselves into." 
Sheila: "But people have gotten themselves always into trouble."" 
After several pages of diaglogue like this, Sheila leaves the store and says: "I left the copy shop frustrated and upset. He was just another man who wanted to teach me something."
Shortly after, she returns to Toronto. She figures, she should not escape her life. She should be with her friends again, who give so much meaning to it.

There is not much plot.. I wondered while reading, if this truly is a novel? It much rather sounds like a diary. But frankly, I did not care, because for me it was a page turner. I liked the tone it was written in, the characters, all the funny and serious stuff, she talks about, in her head or with her friends. Even if it does not have, at some points, much depth, it is always truthful, familiar. 
Does art have to be deep?
Does art have to answer the big questions? How Should A Person Be?
Probably yes. But its not like, the depth and the answers always have to be the same, like, for example, when Nietzsche was at work.
One of my favourites is the point, where she, instead of continuing to write a play for a feminist theater group, starts to have an affair with the artist Israel, which she knows, will not help her to write the play. But he seems to be too good in bed to resist, so she writes: 
"I don't know, why you all just sit in libraries when you could be fucked by Israel....Why are you all reading? I don't understand this reading business when there is so much fucking to be done...." This goes on, in rather drastic language, for over two pages - it was hilarious. When you ever had good sex in your life, you DO guess, what she is talking about. 
But it also left a bitter taste on my tongue, because she is so utterly willing to give herself up to whatever somebody else wants, thinks, prefers. She has her friends, and she is not an equal. Desperately she is trying to find, How a person should be, and looks for guidance, direction, answers mainly in others. There is no inner voice of her to speak of for a very long time.

Its a novel about a search for meaning in a very complex world, the art world of Toronto, the world in general, I'd say, in which one can get very disoriented and at times lonely. It does not give an answer whatsoever, but it shows us, how people feel today. Its brought to paper pretty exactly, I'd say.
So, maybe what I like about this "novel" is, that it asks a very deep and serious and philosophical question (How Should A Person Be?), a question, that can be pondered back and forth for pretty much the rest of all our lives, and Sheila Heti answers it over the course of more then 300 pages with the chaos and the banality of today. Actually, does she answer it? Can it be answered? 

"Now it was time to write.I went straight into my studio and thought about everything I had, all the trash and the shit inside me. And I started throwing the trash and throwing the shit...
I'd never before wanted to uncover all the molecules of shit that were such a part of my deepest being which, once released, would smell forever of the shit that I was, and which nothing -not exile, not fame - could ever disappear. ....I made what I could with what I had. And I finally became a real girl."

So, in a way, that was an answer for me plus the point, where she found her inner voice, her independence. How should a person be? Real! She should not hide her trash and her shit. She should not live in hiding.
I read in one review and it immediately rang true to me, that Sheila in the book is somehow related with Roquentin in Sartres "Nausea". Describing, what is, pulling the own inside out on paper, the ugliness, and instead of trying to fix anything, it just sits there, with the reader, who can do what he wants with it. 

What is Destiny? Another big question, asked in the title for one chapter, followed by the chapter, The Bus Station.. Another glass of wine, another cigarette, an endless conversation with a good friend, deep thoughts, followed by banal ones, silence followed by the lighting of the 25th cigarette.
"When I strip away my dreams, what I imagine to be my potential, all the things I haven't said, what I imagine I feel for other people in the absence of my expressing it, all the rules I've made for myself that I don't follow - I see that I've done as little as anyone else in this world to deserve the grand moniker I. In fact, apart from being the only person living in this apartment, I'm not sure what distinguishes me."

Sidenote 1: I like, that she uses the words fuck, fucked up et cetera quite often. I use them quite often myself. And I am not a fan of writing f**k or "the f word" or what the fuck ever. Its pretentious. And anyways, yesterday I read somewhere, that people who use fuck and other swear words a lot are, scientifically proven, more intelligent and adventurous and sexy. I liked that!
Sidenote 2: I wrote in the beginning, that I right away knew, I would like the book, because it expresses my view on things. That is not true. Maybe it expresses my view on things from 20 years ago or so. But not anymore, though I totally understood everything. I felt at home in this book like I feel at home in my past, among my old friends, in my memories, in my own diary, or even when I go to visit my family. Its a book for people, who are or were at certain moments between 20 and 35, living in big cities and being artists or trying to be artists. 
Sidenote 3: There is a german edition too, its called, Wie sollten wir sein? As ususal, already the translation of the title makes me nervous, because I think, it is not exact enough. How should a person be? is much more general, its a highly philosophical question, whereas, Wie sollten wir sein? much more common is, a question, which does not ask for a truly deep answer. Its just my opinion. But as usual, I'd recommend everybody, who reads English, to choose the original. (I wished, I could read all literature in the Original. It dawns on me, that I might lose a lot through translations, oh well!)

© Susanne Becker

Here is a selection of some other interesting reads about the book:
The Guardian 
The New York Times
The New Yorker
Die Zeit

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