June/July/Aug 2012

Ask Master

A young novelist discovers her genius, one question at a time

Johanna Fateman


“One good thing about being a woman is we haven’t too many examples yet of what a genius looks like,” Sheila Heti’s protagonist, also named Sheila, deadpans. “It could be me.” With some shame in her ambitious conviction, Heti believes her own genius might lie in the transcription of the everyday—that the particulars of her life as a young woman artist can show us what’s human. Recorded dialogue, e-mails, and brutally self-effacing passages fill short chapters of this “novel from life,” united in an uninhibited first-person performance: Her tone can be earnest and eager to please, flippant and crass, terribly lucid and darkly funny. In her quest for greatness, she holds out the absurd possibility that she’s like Moses—an inspiration that reappears throughout Heti’s novel in vivid détournements of the book of Exodus. The flawed prophet is a comforting example to the self-doubting Sheila. When God told him to lead the people from bondage, she writes, Moses balked: “God, I have never been a good talker. Ask someone else. Ask my brother instead of me.

Heti is a good talker (she is The Believer’s interviews editor), and a conversational writer. Her book is set in her Toronto milieu, stars many of her Google-able artist friends, and is steeped in that scene’s values and style. Heti depicts its nonchalant yet serious cultural criticism, its hybrid of self-help and philosophy, and its fondness for collaboration. But the book also shows the flip side of her reliance on a gifted ensemble cast. As she hangs out with her friends, wondering which one of them she should be like (“Responsibility looks so good on Misha, and irresponsibility looks so good on Margaux. How could I know which would look best on me?”), we soon see that she is stuck. Her struggle to write a play begins to pull her under. She loses herself in a punishing sexual infatuation with a guy named Israel, and in a profound friendship with the painter Margaux. In painful lessons, Sheila learns she must temper her outward, searching gaze with the difficult job of self-disclosure.

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Sheila Heti, photo by John Lamb.

The story turns on Sheila’s relationship with Margaux (Heti’s real best friend is the artist Margaux Williamson, whose website the reader can pore over as a companion to Heti’s passionate portrait). Their friendship begins with romantic giddiness and progresses into a high-stakes intimacy that, when in jeopardy, drives the plot. In a glib appraisal of their serious arrangement, Sheila explains, “Margaux complements me in interesting ways. She paints my picture, and I record what she is saying. We do whatever we can to make the other one feel famous.” They get wasted together, talk about whether or not various artists are funny (Richard Serra, no; Manet, yes), share a studio, and travel to Art Basel Miami Beach with Margaux’s bubble-wrapped paintings in tow. Their story never snags on stereotypes of female friendship. It always returns to questions of art.

“Margaux worked harder at art and was more skeptical of its effects than any artist I knew,” Sheila writes. “Sometimes she felt bad and confused that she had not gone into politics—which seemed more straight-forwardly 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.” While Margaux has something that Sheila doesn’t—certainty—she hardly seems like a dictator. Her e-mails to Sheila are adorable (“i’m going to paint your portrait a hundred times and never mention it to anyone—articulately”), as are her placid eviscerations of patriarchy. She casually dismisses a flirtatious correspondence with a fellow painter: “He’s just another man who wants to teach me something.”

Suffering from a bad case of writer’s block, Sheila is seduced by a tape recorder in a shopwindow: “Certain objects want you as much as you want them,” she rationalizes. This one, she naively believes, will “burrow into my deepest recesses, seek out the empty places inside me, and create a warm home for me there.” Sheila tapes her conversations with Margaux, supposedly to work through the problems of her play, but the transcribed dialogue becomes a script within the novel as her play is abandoned. Margaux resists at first. “Don’t you know what I fear most is my words floating separate from my body?” she asks, adding, “You there with that tape recorder is the scariest thing!” But—for art’s sake—she relents:

MARGAUX
(sighs) All right. You know I have more respect for your art than I do for my own fears.

SHEILA
Thank you! Thank you!

MARGAUX
Just promise you won’t betray me.

SHEILA
(reassuringly) I don’t even know what that means.

Sheila beckons to the waitress, who comes over.

Can we also get some jam?

The waitress nods and leaves.

Is it too much that I asked for jam and water?

Sheila demands to know if a relationship can do art’s work, and if it can, what alchemy will translate its revelations into a form that would prove her genius. Heti’s closest precursor is the author Chris Kraus, who framed her autobiographical tell-all expositions (billed as novels, but with no changed names) as “performative philosophy.” Both authors exploit a stereotypical weakness—women’s alleged preoccupation with relationships—to take a stab at greatness. In Kraus’s influential epistolary novel I Love Dick (1997), she writes accusingly to theorist Dick Hebdige, the object of her obsession: “What hooks me on our story is our different readings of it. You think it’s personal and private . . . my neurosis.” But Kraus insists that an investigation of her desire is an intellectual—and appropriately public—occupation. “Why do people still not get it when we handle vulnerability like philosophy, at some remove?” she asks.

For Kraus and Heti (who frankly details her encounters with Israel), sexual submission is a metaphor for their cultural powerlessness, but they never judge their desires or restitute them with a woman-on-top finale. “Why does everybody think that women are debasing themselves when we expose the conditions of our debasement?” Kraus asks in I Love Dick. She points to a bias against women’s autobiography that Sheila echoes as she begins to understand the nature of her writer’s block and how she’ll puzzle her way out—not by overcoming her position, but by articulating it. “Most people . . . have been given a natural modesty that feels to them like morality, but it’s not—it’s luck,” she observes. “They shake their heads at the people with their clothes off rather than learning about human life from their example.” In her wanton pursuit of genius, Sheila’s out of luck—she must work with her clothes off.

In a chapter called “Interlude for Fucking,” she describes a blur of days with Israel, a bender of submission in seven repetitive pages. Sheila taunts facetiously, “I don’t see what you’re getting so excited about, snuggling in with your book, you little bookworms, when instead Israel could be stuffing his cock into you and teaching you a lesson.” Like Kraus, minus the theoretical language, Heti mixes philosophy into these passages. This interlude coolly segues into a meditation on the “death drive,” then lifts even further away from her pornographic index to circle back to the big picture: “Blessed is the woman who can answer for herself, What about living? What is it about living that you want?”

As Sheila approaches her lowest point during a trip to New York, and sees herself as a casualty of her relentless crusade for genius, she asks, “Hadn’t I always gone into the world making everyone and everything a lesson in how I should be?” She continues, proving her point with a distracted appropriation of Margaux’s line, “Somehow I had turned myself into the worst thing in the world: I was just another man who wanted to teach me something!”

Upon her return to Toronto, Sheila finds a letter, a stinging accusation from Margaux, who felt abandoned when Sheila fled to New York: “To be my closest friend and record me, then as soon as you’ve learned how a person should be, you’re done with me!” Margaux demands that Sheila finish her work; it doesn’t even have to be a play, but it must answer the question—“How should a person be?”—so their relationship will not be burdened by Sheila’s restless seeking.

“It was the worst, most difficult thing she could have asked of me,” Sheila says. “And certainly she would be the only person left who could love me—I would have no new friends once my ugliness was out there in the world for everyone to see.” But by showing us her “ugliness”—her neediness, her petty egoism, her sexual humiliations, and her dreams of celebrity—Sheila becomes one of the most personable antiheroes ever. Heti has updated the unsung literary tradition of defiant diaristic writing that insists that philosophy and cultural critique are embedded in the personal. Her tortured self-deprecation can read a little like Violette Leduc’s, and her poetic bluntness sometimes reminds me of Eileen Myles, but these authors come to mind mostly because, like Heti, they have written about women with unusual detail and feeling. Heti truly has a startling voice all her own, and a fresh take on fiction and autobiography’s overlap. Her mix of hyperreal detail, sweeping gestures from the realm of parable, and self-reflexive distortions leaves us wondering what’s real and what’s invented. Though we can’t know for sure, it’s tempting to believe that How Should a Person Be? tells the real story of Heti’s artistic redemption. Its dedication page reads: “for Margaux.”

Johanna Fateman is a writer and musician. She lives in New York, where she owns Seagull Salon.

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