"Funny...odd, original, and nearly unclassifiable...unlike any novel I can think of."—David Haglund, The New York Times Book Review
"Brutally honest and stylistically inventive, cerebral, and sexy."—San Francisco Chronicle
Named a Book of the Year by The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, Flavorpill, The New Republic, The New York Observer, The Huffington Post
A raw, startling, genre-defying novel of friendship, sex, and love in the new millennium—a compulsive read that's like "spending a day with your new best friend" (Bookforum)
By turns loved and reviled upon its U.S. publication, Sheila Heti's "breakthrough novel" (Chris Kraus, Los Angeles Review of Books) is an unabashedly honest and hilarious tour through the unknowable pieces of one woman's heart and mind. Part literary novel, part self-help manual, and part vivid exploration of the artistic and sexual impulse, How Should a Person Be? earned Heti comparisons to Henry Miller, Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, and Flaubert, while shocking and exciting readers with its raw, urgent depiction of female friendship and of the shape of our lives now. Irreverent, brilliant, and completely original, Heti challenges, questions, frustrates, and entertains in equal measure. With urgency and candor she asks: What is the most noble way to love? What kind of person should you be?
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
How Should a Person Be?
By Sheila Heti
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2012 Sheila Heti
All rights reserved.
We were having brunch together. It was Sunday. I got there first, then Misha and Margaux arrived, then Sholem and his boyfriend, Jon.
A few weeks earlier, the owners had repainted the diner walls from a grease-splattered beige to a thicky pastel blue and had spray- painted giant pictures of scrambled eggs and strips of bacon and pancakes with syrup. It ruined the place somewhat, but the food was cheap, it was never crowded, and they always had a place for us.
I shared a breakfast special and a grilled cheese with Margaux. Jon asked for our fries. I don't remember what we started off talking about, or who was the funniest that day. I remember none of the details of our conversation until the subject turned to ugliness. I said that a few years ago I had looked around at my life and realized that all the ugly people had been weeded out. Sholem said he couldn't enjoy a friendship with someone he wasn't attracted to. Margaux said it was impossible for her to picture an ugly person, and Misha remarked that ugly people tend to stay at home.
These are a few of the sordid fruits that led to the Ugly Painting Competition.
* * *
When Sholem was a teenager, he had dreamed of being a theater actor, but his parents didn't want him to go to theater school. They didn't think it was practical, and encouraged him to go to art school instead. So he went, and his first year there, up late one night painting, as the sun began rising with the morning, a sudden and strong feeling came up inside him that said, I must be an artist. I must paint for the rest of my life. I will not settle for anything else. No other future is acceptable to me.
It was an epiphany and a decision both, from which there would be no turning back — the first and most serious vow of his life. So this past spring, he completed his M.F.A. thesis and graduated.
* * *
Who came up with the idea for the Ugly Painting Competition? I don't remember, but once I got enthusiastic, suddenly we all were. The idea was that Margaux and Sholem would compete to see who could make the uglier painting. I really hoped it would happen. I was curious to see what the results would be, and secretly I envied them. I wanted to be a painter suddenly. I wanted to make an ugly painting — pit mine against theirs and see whose would win. What would my painting look like? How would I proceed? I thought it would be a simple, interesting thing to do. I had spent so much time trying to make the play I was writing — and my life, and my self — into an object of beauty. It was exhausting and all that I knew.
Margaux agreed to the competition right away, but Sholem was reluctant. He didn't see the point. The premise turned him off so much — that one should intentionally make something ugly. Why? But I egged him on, pleading, and finally he gave in.
As soon as Sholem returned home after brunch, he set about making his entry — so he wouldn't have to think about it anymore, he explained to me later, or have looming before him the prospect of having to make something ugly.
He went straight into his studio, having already decided what he would do. He imagined it would be like this intellectual exercise that he could sort of approach in a cold fashion. He would just do everything he hated when his students did it. He started the composition smack-dab in the middle of a piece of paper, since paper is uglier than canvas. Then he painted a weird, cartoonish man in profile with fried-egg eyes, and he outlined things instead of shading them, delineating each individual eyelash. Instead of making a nostril, he sort of drew a hole. In the background he painted fluffy white clouds over orange triangular mountains. He made the background a gross pinkish-brownish gray, using mineral sediment dug up from the bottom of the jar in which he washed his brushes. For skin tone he just mixed red and white, and for the shadows he used blue. Though he thought in the end there would be some salvageable qualities to the painting, it just kept getting more and more disgusting until finally he began to feel so awful that he finished it off quickly. Dipping a thick brush in black paint, he wrote at the bottom, really carelessly, The sun will come out tomorrow. Then he stepped back and looked at the result, and found it so revolting that he had to get it out of his studio, and left it on the kitchen table to dry.
Sholem went out to get some groceries for dinner, but the entire time he was gone he felt nauseous. Returning home and setting the bags on the counter, he saw the painting lying there and thought, I cannot see that thing every time I walk into the kitchen. So he took it to the basement and left it near the washer and dryer.
From there, the day just got worse. Making the painting had set off a train of really depressing and terrible thoughts, so that by the time evening came, he was fully plunged in despair. Jon returned home, and Sholem started following him around the apartment, whining and complaining about everything. Even after Jon had gone into the bathroom and shut the door behind him, Sholem still stood on the other side, moaning about what a failure he was, saying that nothing good would ever happen to him, indeed that nothing good ever had; his life had been a waste. It's like you work so hard to train a dog to be good! he called through the door. And the dog is your hand! Then one day you're forced to beat all the goodness out of that dog in order to make it cruel. That day was today!
Then Sholem plodded into the living room and sent an email to the group of us, saying, This project fills me with shame and self- loathing. I just did my ugly painting, and I feel like I raped myself. How's yours, Margaux?
Margaux, the better artist, wrote back: i spent all day on my bed island reading the new york times.
* * *
Fifteen years ago, there lived a painter in our town named Eli Langer. When he was twenty-six, an artist-run center presented his first show. The paintings were gorgeous and troubled, very masterful, all done in rich browns and reds. They were moody and shadowy with old men, girls, and plush chairs, windows, and naked laps. A sadness clouded the few faces, which were obscured by darkness and lit only by faint moonlight. The canvases were very large, and they seemed like the work of someone with great assurance and freedom.
After the show had been up for only a week, it was shut down by the police. People claimed that the pictures were child pornography. The canvases were confiscated, and they were sentenced to be destroyed by the court.
The story was reported in newspapers all across the country, and the trial played on TV for an entire year. Prominent artists and intellectuals became involved and spoke publicly and wrote editorials about artistic freedom. In the end, the judge ruled in Eli's favor, partly; the paintings were returned to him, but on the condition that no one ever see them again. He left them in a corner of his mother's attic, where they remain, covered in soot and mold, today.
After the trial was done, Eli felt exhausted and shaken. Now when he stepped before a canvas, brush in hand, he found that the spirit lay dead in him. He left Toronto for L.A., where he thought he might be able to feel more free, but the images still did not come as they had before.
Crushed with a new insecurity and inhibition, he applied to his now-tiny canvases only hesitant whites, or whites muddled with pink, or a bit of yellow, or the most apologetic blue — so that even if you stepped really close to the paintings, you could barely make out a thing. For the few solo shows he managed to complete in the years following the trial, he created only deeply abstract work, not anything even remotely figurative.
Several times a year, Eli would return to Toronto for a week or so, and would go to art parties and talk about painters and the importance of painting, and would speak confidently about brushstroke and color and line, and would do coke and be sensitive and brutish. On his forearms were tattooed twelve-point letters — the initials of local women artists he had loved, none of whom would speak to him anymore. The male painters embraced him like he was a prodigal son, and word always got around: Have you seen Eli Langer? Eli's back in town!
Late last winter, Margaux talked with him for the first time. They sat on an iron bench behind a gallery after an opening, surrounded by snow, warmed by a fire burning in a can.
Margaux worked harder at art and was more skeptical of its effects than any artist I knew. Though she was happier in her studio than anywhere else, I never heard her claim that painting mattered. She hoped it could be meaningful, but had her doubts, so worked doubly hard to make her choice of being a painter as meaningful as it could be. She never talked about galleries or went on about which brands of paint were best. Sometimes she felt bad and confused that she had not gone into politics — which seemed more straightforwardly useful, and which she thought she was probably well suited for, having something of the dictator inside, or something of the dictator's terrible certainty. Her first feeling every morning was shame about all the things wrong in the world that she wasn't trying to fix. And so it embarrassed her when people remarked on her distinctive brushstrokes, or when people called her work beautiful, a word she claimed not to understand.
Then that night, around a fire burning in a can, she and Eli spent several hours talking about color and brushstroke and line. They went on to email for several months, and she was briefly converted into the sort of painter he was — a painter who respected painting in itself. But after two months, her art crush dematerialized.
"He's just another man who wants to teach me something," she said.
* * *
Misha and I had planned to take a walk that afternoon, so I went to the apartment he and Margaux shared. When I arrived, he was in his study, at his computer, worrying over his life by checking his email.
We left together and walked north through the neighborhood. It was one of the few genuinely hot days we'd had that summer. As the sky went dark with dusk, I asked him whether Margaux had begun her ugly painting yet. He said he thought not. I said I was really eager to see the results.
Misha said, "It'll be really good for Sholem. He's so afraid of anything hippie."
"Is making an ugly painting hippie?" I asked him.
"It kind of is," he said. "There's, like, experimentation to no clearly valuable end. It's certainly more hippie than making a painting that you know is going to be good."
"Why should Sholem make a painting that he doesn't know is going to be good?"
"I don't know," he said. "But I do think Sholem has a fear of being bad, or of doing the wrong thing. He seems really afraid to take a wrong step at any moment, in any direction. And if what you're afraid of is to take a wrong step at any moment in any direction, that can be limiting. It's good for an artist to try things. It's good for an artist to be ridiculous. Sholem should be a hippie, because with him there's always a tremendous amount of caution."
"What's wrong with caution?"
"Well, there's a misunderstanding, isn't there? Isn't that what was happening over brunch? Sholem was saying that freedom, for him, is having the technical facility to be able to execute whatever he wants, just whatever image he has in his mind. But that's not freedom! That's control, or power. Whereas I think Margaux understands freedom to be the freedom to take risks, the freedom to do something bad or to appear foolish. To not recognize that difference is a pretty big thing."
I said nothing, feeling tense. I wanted to defend Sholem, but I wasn't sure how.
"It's like with improv," Misha said. "True improv is about surprising yourself — but most people won't improvise truthfully. They're afraid. What they do is pull from their bag of tricks. They take what they already know how to do and apply it to the present situation. But that's cheating! And cheating's bad for an artist. It's bad in life — but it's really bad in art."
We had circled ten blocks and the sun had gone down as we were talking. The houses and trees were now painted a dark, dusky blue. Misha said he had a phone meeting, so we started back toward his apartment. His work life was strange and I didn't quite understand it, but neither did he, and it sometimes perplexed and saddened him. There seemed to be no structure or cohesion to it at all. He did only the things he was good at, and the things that gave him pleasure. Sometimes he taught improv classes to nonactors, sometimes he tried to keep nightclubs out of the Portuguese neighborhood where we lived, sometimes he hosted shows. There was no name you could give to it all. In the short biography he had submitted to Harvard — for what would become a dense, leather-bound volume for distribution at his fifteen-year college reunion — his classmates wrote lengthy entries about their worldly success, their children, and their spouses. Misha's entry had simply stated:
Does anyone else feel really weird about having gone to Harvard, given the life they're living now? I live in a two-bedroom apartment above a bikini store in Toronto with my girlfriend, Margaux.
"Good night," I said.
* * *
Several years ago, when I was engaged to be married but afraid to go through with it — afraid that I would end up divorced like my parents, and not wanting to make a big mistake — I had gone to Misha with my concerns. We were drinking at a party and left to take a walk through the night, our feet brushing gently through the lightly fallen snow.
As we walked, I told Misha my fears. Then, after listening for a long while, he finally said, "The only thing I ever understood is that everyone should make the big mistakes."
So I took what he said to heart and got married. Three years later I was divorced.
AT THE POINT WHERE CONVICTION MEETS THE ROUGH TEXTURE OF LIFE
In the years leading up to my marriage, my first thought every morning was about wanting to marry.
One night, in a bar on a boat that was permanently docked at the harbor, I sat beside an old sailor. He had been watching me steadily as I drank. Then we started discussing children; he'd never had any, and I said I thought I would not, as I was certain my kid would be a bad kid. He said, bewildered, "How could anything not good come from you?"
I felt so moved then — shivering at the thought of a divine love that accepts us all, in our entirety. The bar around us became rich and saturated with color, as if all the molecules in the air were bursting their seams — each one insisting on its perfection too.
Then the moment was gone. I saw him as just an old man staring at a girl — seeing her but seeing nothing. He didn't know my insides. There was something wrong inside me, something ugly, which I didn't want anyone to see, which would contaminate everything I would ever do. I knew the only way to repair this badness was devotion in love — the promise of my love to a man. Commitment looked so beautiful to me, like everything I wanted to be: consistent, wise, loving, and true. I wanted to be an ideal, and believed marrying would make me into the upright, good-inside person I hoped to show the world. Maybe it would correct my flightiness, confusion, and selfishness, which I despised, and which ever revealed my lack of unity inside.
So I thought about marriage day and night. And I went straight for it, like a cripple goes for a cane.
* * *
Several months before our wedding, my fiancé and I were strolling together in an elegant park when off in the distance we noticed a bride and a groom standing before a congregation, tall and upright like two figures on a cake. The audience was sitting on folding chairs in the afternoon sun, and we went over giddily to eavesdrop, crouching behind some false rocks, trying to be serious but giggling anyway. I could not see the groom's face — he was turned away — but the bride was facing me. The vows were being exchanged, and the minister was speaking quietly. Then I saw and heard the lovely bride grow choked up with emotion as she repeated the words for richer or for poorer. A tear ran down her cheek, and she had to stop and collect herself before she finished what she was saying.
Excerpted from How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti. Copyright © 2012 Sheila Heti. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. Sholem Paints,
2. At the Point Where Conviction Meets the Rough Texture of Life,
3. Sheila and Margaux,
4. Sheila Can't Finish Her Play,
1. Sheila Goes to the Salon,
2. Fate Arrives, Despite the Machinations of Fate,
3. Sheila Wants to Quit,
4. Sheila Wants to Live,
6. The Story of the Puer,
7. Prayer of the Puer,
8. Margaux Paints,
9. They Wander in Miami,
10. Two Dresses,
1. Two Spiders,
2. They Wander the City on Drugs,
3. Anthony and Uri,
4. Sheila Begins Again,
5. The White Men Go to Africa,
6. The Art Show,
7. Margaux Quilts,
8. Sheila Quakes,
9. What Is Cheating?,
10. What Is Destiny?,
11. The Bus Station,
12. Sheila Wanders in New York,
13. Destiny Rears Its Ugly Head,
14. Sheila Wanders in the Copy Shop,
15. What Is Empathy?,
16. What Is Love?,
18. What Is Betrayal?,
19. In Front of the Bikini Store,
20. Sheila's Fear,
21. How Great It Is to Be an Adult,
22. A Stranger Is a Friend of Another Stranger on Account of Their Strangeness on Earth,
23. Back in Front of the Bikini Store,
24. The Castle,
25. Israel Beckons,
26. Destiny Is the Smashing of the Idols,
27. What Is Freedom?,
1. Sheila Throws Her Shit,
1. The Ugly Painting Competition,
2. The Sack,
3. The Gravedigger,
Also by Sheila Heti,
About the Author,
Reading Group Guide
1. How Should a Person Be? is constructed as part fiction; part play; part confession. How has this mixture of genres shaped your understanding of the novel and how do the different elements converge to create the story?
2. Describe Sheila. What kind of person is she at the beginning of the novel, and what kind of person does she set out to be? What are some things that she does in order to become a "complete person?" Do you think she succeeds? Why or why not?
3. Why is Sheila so drawn to Margaux when they first meet? How would you describe their relationship and what makes them such a dynamic pair?
4. The concept of beauty is highly subjective, especially in the context of this book. Margaux says that there are things that are "not ugly for the world," but "looks like death" to her. What is your definition of ‘ugly?' What is the significance of the ugly painting contest?
5. Israel seems to possess an intoxicating power over Sheila. Why is she so consumed by him? How is she finally able to free herself? Why do you think it was important to Sheila to cut ties with Israel?
6. How are the ideas of fate and freedom manifested in the novel? Are our lives dictated by fate or is fate a self-fulfilling prophesy? How does Sheila reconcile her fear of her fate and her desire to live a meaningful life?
7. Religion is a major conceit throughout the novel. Sheila often finds solace in religious references and comparisons. What significance does Sheila find in these references to Moses and the Israelites? Are religion and fate bound together?
8. Margaux claims that boundaries allow you to love someone. Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?
9. When are human beings cheaters, and how did Sheila's cheating affect Margaux? How do you distinguish between truly being and merely appearing to be?
10. Towards the end of the book, the author includes one chapter that is isolated from the rest of the narrative titled "The Gravedigger." What is the significance of this story and how does it relate to the rest of the book?
11. In this novel, art takes on various forms—the conversations Sheila records with Margaux; the work done at the salon; even the actual book is a form of art. For Heti, artistry and life seem intertwined. Is art a depiction of life, or is it the other way around?
12. Does the book answer the question of how a person should be? Do you think there is an answer? How do you want to be?