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April 9, 2018 | by  | in Arts Books | [ssba]

How Should a Person Be?


We rarely get a look into each other’s inner worlds. Sheila Heti attempts to change this in her 2010 semi-autobiographical novel How Should a Person Be? by putting a fictionalised version of her own complicated consciousness on display. Heti combines real emails and transcribed conversations with fiction, to immerse the reader into the inner world of Sheila, a young, recently divorced writer desperately trying to finish (or even just start) a play she has been commissioned to write. In order to write the play, or perhaps to distract herself from it, Sheila travels to New York and Miami and throws herself into a manic relationship, all the while obsessing over the titular question.

Unsurprisingly, Sheila does not come up with a definitive answer. Instead, there are moments when she begins to doubt that she is any kind of person at all. At one point, Sheila confesses that “When I strip away my dreams, what I imagine to be my potential, all the things I haven’t said… I see that I’ve done as little as anyone else in this world to deserve the grand moniker I”.

For Sheila, this self-doubt is amplified by the nature of her work as a female writer, as the legitimacy of her art is constantly called in question by those in the literary world and wider society. Heti’s exploration of the gendered aspects of Sheila’s self-doubt helps give the novel’s musings a political backbone.

Overall, I found How Should A Person Be? a brave book. While some critics have faulted Heti’s novel for being self-absorbed and narcissistic, I respected the perceptiveness and wit in her analysis of the flawed mind. By putting a manic, compulsive, and wild consciousness on display, Heti lets the reader know that our own messy minds are not so strange after all.


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