Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Third of five notes on Sheila Heti's _How Should a Person Be?_

 3) HETI'S FIRST NOVEL, Ticknor, is superficially quite different from How Should a Person Be?--it's historical fiction, set in 19th century Boston, with a bookish male narrator--but George Ticknor and Sheila share a dilemma.

How does one manage a friendship with a person who has better work habits, more native talent, a more far-reaching imagination, more striking accomplishments, and more insight into her- or himself and others than one has oneself? How do you carry on under the realization that your frtiend is, by any fair criteria, just simply a better person than you are? What if the mere fact that this person is great to be around makes them...hard to be around?

Ticknor faces this dilemma in regard to William H. Prescott, perhaps the greatest American historian of the 19th century (Conquest of Mexico, et c.).  The real George Ticknor was Prescott's first biographer and a personal friend of his, and Heti's novel depicts the envy-&-admiration sauce in which her narrator stews for years and years.

Sheila--that is, our narrator in How Should a Person Be?--draws sustenance of many kinds from her good friend the painter Margaux: support, inspiration, companionship. Margaux's disciplined commitment to work is a model that Sheila wishes to emulate, but Margaux seems also able to keep fresh energy pouring into her relationships. Margaux seems to have things figured out; Sheila (recently divorced, unable to complete the play she has been commissioned to write, partying a bit more desperately than she used to) plainly does not.

(I am ignorant as to whether Heti's own character falls or ever fell similarly short relative to that of the painter Margaux Williamson, and hope to remain so.)

Thus one possible answer to the question posed in the novel's title is, for Sheila, "as much like Margaux as I can pull off." But Sheila, like Ticknor, puts a foot wrong occasionally, graceless and over-literal in her attempts to follow Margaux's example--incorporating bits of Margaux's conversation into her own work, purchasing the same dress that Margaux recently purchased--thereby straining the friendship. The tensions generated by this All-About-Eve-ish behavior eventually make Toronto too uncomfortable for Sheila, who hops down to New York for a few chapters.

By novel's end, however, here is a great clearing of the air, mainly at Margaux's instigation, and the friendship resumes in a less obsessive and more constructive key. A less dramatic ending than someone dying, but it works.

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