A gentle word of warning: things get a bit explicit in this post.
Just over a year ago I noticed all the super-cool kids at the back of the class seemed smitten with Sheila Heti's How Should A Person Be? This was the first I'd heard of the Toronto author and her second(!) novel, published by Anansi, perhaps the most prestigious of Canada's small presses. Slated for US publication, the internet hep-cats were expressing irony-free enthusiasm for the book, signaling How as the next "it" novel — which has indeed come to pass — so I gambled a stamp and placed my order.
I dislike the book, but then I was hampered by several significant disadvantages going into it. If teh interwebz is any indication, the book's ideal audience is: A) female B) young C) not yet burdened with/enlightened by children. Dudes pushing 50 need not apply — especially if they are the fathers of adolescent daughters.
A tip of the hat, though, for all those widely acknowledged techniques that bring novelty to the novel — the first-person narrator named “Sheila Heti,” who interacts with and records the conversations of other similarly identifiable “real” people, the (Tina) fey tone of voice that either belies or connotes a formidable intelligence, the calculated use of extreme candor, and so on. I can see why these strategies have made this book the toast of the Global Village. Some of them even worked with me.
But, man oh man, did I ever hate the sex.
This is a problem, because this book meditates a great deal on sex. Just a few paragraphs into the first chapter, “Sheila Heti” announces this is the era “of some really great blow-job artists.” She's too canny to declare herself one of them, but she's also canny enough to let the reader know just how much she is willing to suffer for her art — quite a bit, apparently: “I just breathe through my nose and try not to throw up . . . I did vomit a little the other day, but I kept right on sucking.”
She soon takes up with a coked-up piece of work named Israel. A “9½ Weeks” scenario takes place, with some distinctions: Israel comports himself as a low-rent John Gray, under whose ministrations “Sheila Heti,” the would-be feminist playwright, is happy to play Elizabeth McGraw. She recognizes the absurdities of this and even comments on a few of them, but the relationship doesn't conclude until she willingly trumps his degradations, finally provoking his disgust. For readers wary of Sadeian extremes, if the passage quoted in the previous paragraph hasn't already removed the book from your “maybe” list, the scene in question won't either.
Taking these scenes at face value, it could be argued that when it comes to no-holds-barred sexual congress, a person is likely to discover “how to be” only after that person has gone too far and discovered how not to be. Not a jolly conclusion, to be sure, but also not a “bad” lesson to learn, either — especially for readers who haven't yet reached that point of no return.
There are other filters through which to view these scenes, but they don't make the sex any more joyful or ecstatic. Which might also account for the book's enormous appeal: sexual congress might not be an especially joyful or ecstatic business these days, particularly for young women. Heti may be the natural response to Houllebecq.
Jessa Crispin (aka, “Bookslut”), one of Heti's earliest champions, was recently gob-smacked by an unexpected addition to the “self-help” shelf: Why Love Hurts by Eva Illouz. Illouz dares to propose that when it comes to expectations of love, an individual's feelings of unhappiness or alienation within a given society might not be within the individual's purview of change — that those “negative” feelings might not, in other words, be that person's fault: it might be society that is to blame. Shortly after taking a survey of “Game” blogs (essentially platforms where “Israels” boast at length of their “Sheila” conquests), Mary Scriver came to a similar conclusion: perhaps the West has become a feral society.
These observations raise (or ought to) burning questions for everyone. “How should a person be?” is just one; “How should a society be?” is another. If that's the title of Ms. Heti's next novel, I will hand over the plastic. If it proves to be a further account of even-sadder-sex, however, I will forgo the pleasure of reading it.