The Short Version: Sheila Heti, a playwright in Toronto, is struggling with authenticity and what it means to be. It’s all very late-twentysomething angst, as she learns, well, how to be a person through various trials and tribulations.
The Review: I’m not sure if I hated this book or if I just felt meh about it. I guess I ought to get that off my chest right away – feels better now!
I made a comment in my review of Ivyland that Miles Klee had written a more truthful and accurately evocative Garden State. If that’s the cultural analogy there, the one here has to be – and, sorry, I know everyone is making the same analogy but – with Lena Dunham’s Girls. Except that I really like Girls, even if it sometimes feels way too uncomfortably real. A friend of mine, in my book club, said that she hated watching the show (and Tiny Furniture) because the uncomfortableness of it just got under her skin. I think that might be the best way to describe how I feel about this book, except that by “under my skin”, I don’t mean that the awkward realities were so real that they made me turn away because OH MY GOD WHO WANTS TO WATCH THAT STUFF SINCE IT HAPPENS TO ME TOO but rather that the so-called “realities” of this book were so painfully self-conscious and self-aware that several times throughout the course of the novel, I found myself shouting things like “oh, who the fuck cares” and “ughhhh get over it” and “give me a break”. And so on.
The ToB-discussion of the book over at BookRiot (link here) mentions that it feels like “a blog circa 2001 by someone who isn’t particularly interesting.” And I cannot think of a more accurate snapshot. Look, I had a LiveJournal. And a Xanga. And I now have a Tumblr – I think most of us had something and continue to have something and we’re all guilty of thinking our own thoughts are more important than they might actually be. Hell, I’ve been writing a book review blog for the last three years without any regard for the fact that I have no credentials other than reading a metric fuckton of books a year and that I like writing about them. The fact that I’m still around and doing this is either a testament to my tenacity or to the sense that, perhaps, people actually read these reviews. I don’t know, you tell me.
But the thing is… if you’re writing something where you’re consciously aware of yourself the whole time and you’re in your twenties and you’re desperately trying to pose in the direction of “asking big questions”, you’re doing it wrong. It doesn’t matter how often you pull out a good pithy quote or shockingly funny moment – and Heti does accomplish both of those things now and then – if you are consciously doing it on too many levels. “How should a person be?” is an excellent question, one that every single twentysomething (except for like the finance majors who are just going to keep ruining the world) probably asks themselves once a week or more. That’s the whole point of your twenties, I’ve been told. I know I don’t have an answer – I don’t even have an attempt at an answer. I just sort of do and hope that it works out for the best.
The Lena Dunham model, of making art that addresses the question and captures the experience in a very visceral way, rarely works. For whatever reason, maybe because she’s fucking brilliant, Lena’s work succeeds: it raises the questions and shows people trying to work it all out but never foists answers on you. The false notes are few and far between, whereas this novel is all dissonance and a few haphazardly well-sounded chords – and I think it is because it’s all posturing and posing. Ooooh, look, part of the novel is written in dramatic form – lifted straight from tape-recorded conversations – because she’s supposed to be writing a play this whole time. The emails and letters sent and received throughout the book are ALL written in a kitschy-cool number-list format (regardless of the fact that that makes no sense). She talks about blowjobs and wild sex in “honest” and “stark” terms, ooh ahh.
I think it was actually the bits about sex that infuriated me the most. It started so well – with a line about blowjobs being the great artform of our century – and just went downhill from there on out. If you can write about blowjobs well, that’s awesome – good for you. If you can write about sex well, please by all means do. But so very few people can do that and it very quickly become apparent that Ms. Heti is not one of them. Oh, you used the word gagging and were quite descriptive in your discussion of just how you give oral sex. Congratulations – were you trying to shock me? Are you trying to make a statement about how unshocked I am, on like a meta level? You were unsuccessful in the first and the second just makes you an ass.
Rating: 1 out of 5. Basically, I realize that I just about hated this book – except for a handful of really well-wrought lines. For the most part, I find her voice annoying, her observations cloying, and the end result a nullity that makes me despair more than anything else. The greatest novels of our time have, in one way or another, dealt with the question of “how should a person be?” but not a single one of them was trying so hard to be so self-aware of it. That’s the reason those are the novels we still read – and that’s the reason that, if there’s any justice in the world, this book will be swiftly dispatched in the ToB and will then go gently into that navel-gazing good night of its kin.