How Should a Person Be?

By Sheila Heti

In 2012, critics praised Sheila Heti’s second novel, How Should a Person Be? The New York Times named it their most notable book of 2012 and magazines such as The New Republic (who once published the works of Virginia Woolf) and the New York Observer placed this novel on their “Best Books of 2012” lists. As well as this, How Should a Person Be? was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. To have a novel longlisted for such a prize, a prize once won by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is frankly an insult to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s also an insult to Virginia Woolf that magazines she wrote for would enjoy such a terrible novel. In no way does Heti’s novel measure up to the recognition it has received.

A part of me wonders why I even put myself through the agony of reading the entire novel. I know the answer though; I hate not finishing a book. My stubbornness led to a week’s worth of misery and a day spent in my favourite place, the library, was a day shamefully wasted. How Should a Person Be? contains 306 pages and each page is pretentious torture. The novel’s blurb describes the story as “a postmodern self-help book” and “an autobiography of the mind.” If I had the same thoughts as the protagonist, who is also the author, and if I, as a reader, willingly chose this book to help me during my quarter-life crisis, I would probably stab myself with a fork.

The novel is told from Sheila’s point of view as she begins to go through a period of self-doubt and deals with big, pseudo-intellectual questions concerning morality, art and, of course, how should a person be. Unable to write a play and in search for inspiration, Sheila begins to record her conversations with friend and fellow artist, Margaux, who is based on Margaux Williamson. Margaux never appears to lack creativity and embarks on projects with a seemingly swift ease. However, Sheila’s desire to tackle the question of how a person should be and to rid herself of writer’s block by recording Margaux, eventually causes a rift in their friendship. Alongside this, Sheila enters into a relationship with a man named Israel. This results in several explicit sexual scenes that I wasn’t prepared for. The grand moment of realisation for the protagonist occurs during one of their sexual escapades and that was when I had my own realisation, or in this case, a confirmation: this book is not for me.

However, I can’t completely discredit the book. There were some nice one-liners and the occasional paragraph that had me thinking that maybe this book isn’t so bad. I even found myself enjoying some of the things Sheila had come to learn about herself, others and the world around her. However, one-liners and a paragraph or two can’t carry a book to success and I can’t bring myself to write about how great the book is with those sparse but wonderful sentences in mind. While it isn’t the worst book to ever be published, I believe it comes pretty close, despite those moments of redemption.

Sheila Heti’s novel, How Should a Person Be? is a true indication that one person’s opinion of a book can be very different to our own. However, I should also point out that even though I wasn’t a fan of this novel, there are people out there who would probably really enjoy it. In particular, I would recommend this to fans of HBO’s Girls as the characters share similar elements and have similar issues to those in How Should a Person Be?
This article first appeared in Issue 15, 2014.
Posted 6:52pm Sunday 13th July 2014 by Mandy Te.