Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, June 10, 2013

Fourth of five notes on Shelia Heti, _How Should a Person Be?_

4) AS THE NOVEL has a tie to Ticknor in its handling of the tragi-comedy of having a superior friend (as discussed in third note), so it has one to The Middle Stories, Heti's previous book, in its renunciation of complexities of syntax and diction. The sentence constructions and the vocabulary usually remain at the level of Young Adult novels...excepting such phrases as "blow your smoke up my cunt so I can taste it with my dizzy little puss"... though, who knows, the boundaries of YA are not where they used to be.

This chosen simplicity goes against the grain of the thinking of the fiction writers in my own personal contemporary pantheon--Gary Lutz, say, or Ben Marcus or Miranda Mellis--who tend to emphasize that sentences ought to be interesting. Heti's sentences do not even try to be formally interesting, and this has an undeniable effect. For me, it's rather like that of Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat--not a very dignified precursor, I suppose, but her writing of adults with decidedly adult problems in the guileless prose of the Betsy-Tacy books created a new frisson, one would have to say.

Heti's rudimentary syntax and vocabulary are all the more striking in that she is writing about contemporary artists, artists moreover often talking about their art. Since the 1980s, I would say--the MFA era, we could call it--artists have gone in for a lot of heavy conceptual lifting and dense continental-philosophy terminology in their artists' statements, and often (especially if they are male and have been drinking) in their conversation. Either Toronto has been immune to this development (fat chance!), or Heti has consciously chosen to make her artists honest, plain-spoken, and soapbox-averse.

Margaux reports a conversation with an American gallery owner: "He asked if in Canada people liked paintings small, and I said yes, and he said well here in America we like our paintings big, and we don't like them painted on wood, or when the paint is thin--."  Sheila breaks in: "He must have been so happy with you!"

Big?  Small? Painters talk about big and small, not about, you know, what Hal Foster and Rosalind Krauss and Barry Schwabsky talk about? Can this be true?

In the judging of the Ugly Painting Competition, Scholem chimes in: "And I find the drip ugly, because nothing upsets me more than seeing a drip."  This comment resonates with Margaux: "I like this critique!  This is awesome!"

Being upset by drips...this is a critique? Moreover, an awesome critique?

The novel may be a critique in its own right, a call (of sorts) to dial the discourse of art back...way, way back, and just say, e.g., "I like this because it has blue in it!" It would be a change, certainly.

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