Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, June 8, 2013

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

2) PART OF AN august tradition by virtue of its balletic negotiation of the border between novel and memoir, How Should a Person Be? also joins a long and distinguished line of novels about young artists in the metropolis who anxiously juggle life, love, money, and their work.  Hard to say where this line begins--satire of modestly-talented writers just barely scraping by in the city goes back at least to Pope's Dunciad--but I am going to say the tradition begins with the middle section of Balzac's Lost Illusions, when Lucien de Rubempré hits Paris. From there, we could point to Flaubert's Sentimental Education, Murger's Scènes de la vie de Bohème, the earlier chapters of The Sun Also Rises, Tess Slesinger's The Unpossessed, a lot of Dawn Powell, perhaps On the Road (the peripatetic version of the type), Edmund White's The Farewell Symphony... and the line continues.

Some moments in the novel thus seem like figure skating's compulsory figures: Sheila's vaulting ambition and sense of election ("I am writing a play that is going to save the world"), the characters' experiments in elective neurochemistry (Chapter title: "They Wander the City on Drugs"), the parties, the ridiculous jobs, the urban characters.

What is different about the Bohemian Metropolis novel in the 21st century? The new possibilities for celebrity in these cable-&-internet days, for one. Every review of How Should a Person Be? that I encountered quoted the line from page three: "We live in an age of some really great blow-job artists." Gertrude Stein is a touchstone, but so is Keanu Reeves.

Another new note: alongside the traditional humble jobs by which young artists make ends meet (Sheila works in a hair salon), we have art as multi-million-dollar bonanza (Sheila and Margaux drop in on Art Basel in Miami).

Finally--not that the book lacks seriousness, but no one dies. No one gets tuberculosis or AIDS, no one succumbs to addiction, no one starves, no one commits suicide. No one utterly, irrevocably fails. This is a wide departure from the Bohemian Metropolis tradition. Somehow, it's a bohemia with safety nets; everyone is going to be all right.

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