Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, June 7, 2013

First of five notes on Sheila Heti, _How Should a Person Be?_

ONLY NOW AM I getting around to the novel was so widely discussed a year ago.  This was not my plan.  I bought it a year ago, fully intending to...well, never mind.

1) The principal character in Heti's novel is Sheila Heti, a writer who lives in Toronto, as is and does Heti herself.

(For simplicity's sake, let's refer to the author as "Heti" and the novel's main character as "Sheila." They obviously have a great deal in common, but are just as obviously distinguishable.)

A number of Heti's friends also appear in the novel under their own names as Sheila's friends, the crucial one being painter Margaux Williamson.

Novel or memoir? (Rabbit or duck?  Wave or particle?) How Should a Person Be? obviously dances along the novel/memoir divide, hence (I am guessing) the blurb from David Shields, whose Reality Hunger is a recent landmark in the discussion of the nature of that divide. The dust jacket bears the phrase "A Novel from Life," but we can't tell whether its presence there is, as it were, official (it does not appear on the title page) or merely added by the publisher for publicity purposes.

Official or un-, does the description "novel from life" clarify the text's standing?  I would say no. Most novels are "from life," after all, and a great many asymptotically approach memoir.  Let's see... Philip Roth, Christopher Isherwood, Dorothy Richardson, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Samuel Butler... what the hell, let's run it back to Aphra Behn, whose Oronooko (1688) is presented as events she heard about or witnessed, and perhaps did...who knows?

Daniel Defoe apparently wrote Robinson Crusoe hoping the suckers would think it the actual memoir of a man stranded for years on a desert island.

The origins of the English novel are inextricable from the history of hoaxes. Truth and fiction were always already grafted inseparably to each other. How Should a Person Be? embodies this grafting in a contemporary key, but the grafting itself is as traditional as having chapters, as having dialogue, as having characters.

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