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Painting Ugly

SHEILA HETI’S FIRST novel, Ticknor, was tiny and at first glance rambling—but in fact, beautifully composed and orchestrated. In it, she told the story of real-life author George Ticknor’s life through his own obsessive mental cycles as he walks to a dinner party thrown by the subject of the biography he has written. The book was a satire on nineteenth-century biography and an exploration of a twisted and self-flagellating psyche. It was also a stylish experiment in literary form. The fact that a major newspaper assigned a review of it in 2006 to me, then a semi-employed magazine intern, said plenty about the status of Canadian fiction in the United States, or perhaps of experimental literary fiction generally.

Now Heti has turned the Ticknor treatment on herself in her latest “novel from life.” How Should a Person Be?, based on recorded conversations between Heti and her friends, describes a woman named Sheila making a life in Toronto after leaving her husband, panicking over her own inability to commit to relationships and to projects. She is trying to write a play, which she continually quits and picks up again, while supporting herself working in a hair salon. Her close but sometimes bruisingly intimate friendship with the artist Margaux Williamson (Heti’s actual collaborator on a number of artistic projects) guides her through a number of personal discoveries but sometimes appears to be a crutch. So does a compulsive affair with a baker-painter named Israel, a bit like Adam from the TV show Girls but minus the bizarro charm, who tells her the first time they wake up together, “I like to have my cock sucked in the morning.”

Heti has become a bit of a literary pop star in the United States over the last six years: she is the interviews editor at the Believer, and her last book, The Chairs Are Where the People Go, was widely acclaimed. So it was with incredulity that the New York Observer covered her difficulties finding an American publisher for How Should a Person Be?, which before it found a home at Henry Holt was rejected by at least six other houses—sometimes for ridiculous reasons. (People “don’t talk like that in New York,” Heti reported one editor saying.) And yet, perhaps, for some fair ones as well. How Should a Person Be? often feels like a transitional work, a book caught between new, reality TV-inspired concepts of self-presentation and fictional form, and old necessities of plot and character development: an ungainly beast.

The book is structured rather like the universe of “The Hills” (one of Heti’s avowed inspirations) or any other reality TV show: “reality” edited into a mostly traditional narrative shape. Sheila declares in the prologue that she often thinks the answer to her eponymous question is “a celebrity,” suggesting that she’s one of the people who is “destined to expose every part of themselves so the rest of us can know what it means to be a human,” watching the Paris Hilton sex tape and sensing “a kinship; she was just another white girl going through life with her clothes off.” (In her play with the personal and the public, as with her prolificacy across genres and her generosity to other artists working in a variety of media, Heti often recalls the filmmaker Miranda July. There’s a similarity of style, too, a sort of blunt willed innocence, which can occasionally come across as obtuseness in Heti’s case but also is part of her unimpeachable and peculiar charisma.) She and Margaux endure some of the classic vicissitudes of friendship inside a reality show: petty arguments that, at their core, are fought over clashing ideas of what is meant to be shared between two people and their viewing public. Sheila has no boundaries; Margaux has, probably, about the usual amount.

One particularly bad fight happens after Sheila and Margaux go to Miami Basel together and Sheila realizes the story of their trip makes for a more powerful work than the fictional play she has been futzing with. Transcribing her recorded conversations and writing up a narrative, “I felt closer to knowing something about reality, closer to some truth.” Not long after Sheila shows her new piece to Margaux, she goes to see Margaux’s latest painting, a portrait in self-loathing, and realizes that through using Margaux’s words in her work, she has somehow reflected back to Margaux a false and hideous version of her friend and perhaps even inspired a serious personal crisis: “I had come too close and hurt her—killed whatever in Margaux made art, whatever allowed her to tell herself that it was all right to be a painter in the face of all of her doubts.” The horror Sheila feels over “cheating” this way sends her on a long wander to New York and Atlantic City and occupies most of the rest of the novel. And then we find out that Margaux’s crisis is not so much existential as generic (she wants to make a movie next instead of painting), and really she is perfectly fine and just annoyed that Sheila left town so abruptly without explaining where she was going.

Here is where reality can fail us: sometimes it is not that interesting. Sometimes the stakes are not that high. Fiction allows the writer to create a heightened version of reality, to raise the stakes on a familiar sort of conflict, to use the tools of suspense and surprise to awaken us into a startled sense of “what it means to be human.” The best nonfiction employs the same tools with invisible elegance, selecting and splicing reality to build narratives that are as constructed as any nineteenth-century novel. But Heti lets her edits show. The quarrels between Sheila and Margaux, and the estrangement and long journey-of-the-soul that follow, feel manufactured to add compulsion to the plot. They are over-narrated, which is a sad waste from such a talented scene-builder. And so they deflate in the long term, instead of slowly building on themselves and adding to the book’s thematic heft.

And yet the very ungainliness of How Should A Person Be? has its purpose, and comes with some real rewards. The first chapter opens with Sheila and her friends sitting in a diner arguing about art—sort of a Canadian art-world Seinfeld moment—and deciding that the two painters among them, Margaux and Sholem, should compete to make the ugliest painting. The idea of the “ugly painting” hangs over the book: should art be beautiful? What is the purpose of beauty in art, or in writing? And what happens to art when the artist abandons the ideal of beauty and seeks to make something ugly? Can a true artist ever make something that is really ugly, or will there be a sort of instinctual greatness to the work no matter what?

Sholem stands in for the rules-bound artist, whose ideal of beauty is based in patterns learned in art school and who creates his ugly painting based on a reversed application of those rules: “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.” Margaux, who rejected art school because it seems like a “country club” to her, stands in for the instinctual artist. She ends up painting a hideously ugly yellow and black vagina that, even so, Sholem admits at the end of the book, is “so special. … Your snaky, searching line is everywhere.”

How Should a Person Be? is its own sort of ugly painting, especially compared to the highly schematic play Sheila is trying to write when we first encounter her, and which she finally drops after the fight and final reconciliation with Margaux to write something based on the whole arc of their friendship—that is, the book we have been reading, with its pages and pages of conversation rendered in dialogue format. The idea is that Sheila is trying to avoid Sholem’s fate (and here one feels a little bad for Toronto painter Sholem Krishtalka, the real-life model for Sholem, who is repeatedly described as a lesser artist who should have stuck to art criticism). She is trying to break the rules not by following a shadow upside-down version of them, but by operating in a universe without rules, or one in which the only rule is the force of her imagination. This is put in terms of gender: Heti suggests it may be easier for female artists, like Margaux and Sheila, to exist in such a universe because women “haven’t too many examples yet of what a genius looks like” and so can make things up as they go along. The rest of the book offers a devastating account of the traps women fall into nonetheless, namely allowing men to act as their sole mentors and sources of approval. It is, in a very new way, the most thoughtfully feminist novel I have read in years—because of its flaws, and not despite them.

Britt Peterson is a writer in Washington, D.C.