Sheila Heti’s latest novel, How Should a Person Be?, has been subject to lots of extra-ponderous criticism—to say nothing of the lazy comparisons to Lena Dunham’s Girls—because it does this really radical and experimental thing where it draws from the author’s own life, including transcriptions of real conversations and real emails. Some of the characters even have the same names as their real-life counterparts.
Of course, it’s not actually all that new. Reviewing the novel in The Observer, Emily Witt pointed us to Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station,Tao Lin’s Shoplifting at American Apparel and Keith Gessen’s All The Sad Young Literary Men. Or we could defer to the expert, I Love Dick author Chris Kraus.
“Heti’s use of real art-world names, real events, real conversations and correspondence, owes a large debt to the work of the late Kathy Acker, which, due to our short cultural memory, might be obscured by the tedious arguments for and against the ‘generational narcissism’ of social media,” she wrote in the Los Angeles Review of Books.
At any rate, one of the hazards of this literary choice is that one’s material is also a lot of other people’s material, because, let’s face it, we’re all memoirists here. Take Slate critic Katie Roiphe, who began her review of Ms. Heti’s novel with a whopping and backhanded disclosure.
Ms. Roiphe wrote:
One of my personal interests in Heti’s semidocumentary novel about a group of very appealing artist types in Toronto is that Heti’s Misha used to be my Misha. He was my closest friend in college, before he moved to Canada and became one of Heti’s closest friends. I don’t think this necessarily contributes to my complicated reaction to the book, but perhaps it’s lurking there somewhere (and I do know that she is not exaggerating the brilliance and wonderfulness of her friends).
Misha is based on the writer Misha Glouberman, with whom Ms. Heti collaborated on the pop philosophy book The Chairs Are Where the People Go. And although Ms. Roiphe is eager to corroborate the “brilliance” of her and Ms. Heti’s mutual friends, she thinks the artistic attention Ms. Heti focuses on hanging out with them is a little unseemly.
The perpetual, piquant childishness, the fetishizing and prolonging of an early 20s conversation about the Meaning of Life is central to both the book’s appeal and its annoyingness. Heti’s character is working in a hair salon and thinking a lot about art and how to be “the ideal human” while also hanging out with people so fascinating, including Misha, who is in his 40s, that she is recording their every word for posterity.
Personal intrigue aside, Ms. Roiphe’s remark echoes New Yorker critic James Wood’s argument that the dialogue and concerns of How Should A Person Be? have “that sloppy, pert formlessness characteristic of university days, so that one occasionally has to remind oneself that the author is thirty-five and not twenty.”
It seems to us that the prevailing critics aren’t up to date on their New York, New York Times Magazine, and Atlantic cover stories. Three out of five Thought Leaders agree: People take a long time to get a steady job, get married and get knocked up these days, if at all. Instead of doing those things after they graduate from college, they juggle a bunch of freelance gigs, freeze their eggs, and hang out for ten more years. They call it emerging adulthood and How Should a Person Be? is probably, like, their Revolutionary Road.