The new thing Heti tries in How Should a Person Be? is actually “easy” (perhaps even a “satisfying yarn”), but there are ways in which it is not like most novels. It is fiction, but the characters are the author and her Google-able friends. The plot advances through long stretches of transcribed dialogue, conversations about painting recorded for use in the narrator’s unfinished play. Dreams, fantasies, and Jungian therapy sessions are dutifully documented.
It’s not hard to imagine some critics (perhaps the older ones) diagnosing it as a work of generational narcissism.
But anyone who has ever experienced something, documented the experience, and then narrated and shared the document–that is, anyone who has made a Facebook photo album–will feel relieved to see this mediated, semi-public way of life reproduced in literature.
“Before I was twenty-five, I never had any friends, but the friends I have now interest me non-stop. Margaux paints my picture and I record what she is saying. We do whatever we can to make the other one feel famous,” the narrator says.
Stein recalled that during their discussions of an early draft, Heti recommended he watch the MTV series The Hills to get a better sense of what she was trying to capture.
“It did help me understand something about the novel, but it didn’t bring me any closer to a publishing plan at Farrar, Straus and Giroux,” Stein said. He ended up passing on the book, although both he and Heti say it has since changed shape significantly.
Unlike the stars of The Hills, who are so boring their allure is Brechtian, Heti’s characters reflect a novelist’s skill for empathy-wrangling. Sheila grapples with the consequences of using self-documentation as a means to fame, as it threatens to destroy the imperfect life she does have.
A week after Sheila buys the same dress as her best friend Margaux, Margaux e-mails Sheila: “when you said that you’d only wear it out of town and never in toronto, it sort of seemed reasonable, but not really, since of course we only exist in pictures.” They then stop talking.