A young novelist discovers her genius, one question at a time
How Should a Person Be?:
A Novel from Life
by Sheila Heti
Henry Holt and Co.
$25.00 List Price
“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 (
REGISTERED USERS of bookforum.com and BOOKFORUM SUBSCRIBERS have access to this article, but must be logged in to view it. If you are not a registered user of bookforum.com, please create your free login here. If you are a subscriber, but haven’t activated your online account, please do so here.
SUBSCRIBE NOW for access to our online archives,* and receive the printed magazine for the discounted rate of $18 a year.**