How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti

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How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: An innovative mixture of reality and fiction. However the introspection tends towards narcissism and the sexual content seems to be too intent on shock factor. Fans of Lena Dunham's Girls TV show may enjoy this.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 306 Date: January 2013
Publisher: Harvill Secker
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1846557545

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Much has been made in the media about the similarity in approach of Sheila Heti's fictionalised autobiographical How Should A Person Be? and Lena Dunham's HBO television series Girls. They certainly share a similarly bleak and introspective view of life, both are apparently based on the writer's own experience, both have a somewhat knowingly shock factor particularly when it comes to sex and both leave me somewhat depressed and sad. And both have been critical successes in the US. Indeed, How Should A Person Be? also features on the 2013 long list for the Women's Prize for Fiction, although it's not easy to assess where the fiction starts and the reality stops. In fact, the conceit is also somewhat similar to the scripted reality shows that dominate certain television channels. The effect is something that is interesting as a concept and exercise but less than enjoyable to read.

Heti's narrator is a writer named Sheila Heti who is struggling to complete a play script. The narrator's friends include Margaux Williamson (Heti's friend, the Canadian artist) and Misha (Heti has previously written a book with Misha Glouberman) amongst other depictions of real life characters from Heti's life. However, the fact and fiction lines are further blurred by the inclusion of large chunks of dialogue, presented as if in a play format, which are apparently recorded verbatim conversations with the characters, together with real life emails and letters (although why each sentence in these is individually numbered is not explained).

There's no clear story line as such. It's more like reading extracts from a diary in that sense. On one hand the book works on the axis of beauty and ugliness while on the other it veers from profound thoughts (Heti has a philosophical side backed by Jewish faith insights) to the outright banal. It's a little like looking through the memory card of a somewhat indiscriminate photographer's camera. The book starts and ends with a competition between Margaux and another artist friend, Sholem to paint the most ugly picture possible while the bulk of the book is an exploration of how Sheila wants to be seen. Rather depressingly, on the second page Sheila confesses that mostly she wants to be a celebrity.

Perhaps to her credit, Heti doesn't make the Sheila character at all appealing. In fact, the point is largely that she doesn't really have a character but seems to be something of a blank slate on which she is trying to build a character from other people's characteristics. If Heti had portrayed this as the result of her failed marriage and the search for her place in the world as a result, this might have had more power, but she suggests that this is a long term situation.

Part of this lack of character has led her to some distinctly subservient and crudely portrayed sexual relationships, particularly with the character Israel. However this seems to be too intent on shock factor than as a means to add to her story.

The whole introspection thing is difficult to pull off. At its worst it can be narcissistic and dull and here there is next to none of the self-depreciating humour that can make this more enjoyable and the portrayal of a narrator with no character of her own reduces the ability to find her interesting if she cannot be likeable. The more philosophical moments just about prevent this from being too narcissistically dreary.

It's an interesting concept and when she reveals the purpose of the book it is rather touching in an odd sort of way, and in her more profound musings, she hints at some interesting ideas. However, sadly for me these were overshadowed by the more banal content which may be an accurate reflection of her life, but that doesn't make it an interesting or enjoyable read. Overall, a disappointment for me, but if you are a big fan of the Girls television show, you may find this speaks to you more effectively.

Our thanks to the kind people at Harvill Secker for sending us this book.

Heti is not the first to play with fictionalised autobiography by any means. Scenes From Provincial Life by J M Coetzee is a particularly interesting example of this post modernist approach. For more introspective fiction Mo Said She Was Quirky by James Kelman is also worth reading.

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Buy How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti at


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