Books | How should a person be?

“We live in an age of some really great blow-job artists. Every era has its art form. The nineteenth century, I know, was tops for the novel”

In How Should a Person Be? memoir, fiction and abstract philosophical discussion meet to explore human nature and what it ultimately means to grow up and become a ‘person’. Unapologetically, Heti uses transcripts of conversations, emails and stream-of-consciousness to seemingly ‘make a point’.

The protagonist, Sheila, is a struggling playwright who is afraid of people seeing her soul and discovering its ugliness. Sheila is clearly very self-aware, particularly in concern with the triviality of her life and what she has to offer to the world. Her plight to make a difference and be noticed is all too recognisable; who didn’t come to university to make something of themselves?

Angsty, self-obsessed, narcissistic and thoroughly deplorable in character Sheila is still engaging. The pretentious conversations, seemingly had on an hourly basis, are enough to make even a philosophy student cringe. Yet nonetheless, Sheila’s voice is refreshing and brash, with clearly no intention of appeasing or being liked for its sentimentality of pretty use of words. Much in the same way as we have come to be obsessed with the often unlikable characters of Girls (HBO), Heti’s brute honesty and open acceptance of all things ugly and sexual is still exciting and new for us.

The superficial tone, although humorous and at times clearly intentional, is somewhat overplayed and becomes too believable to be satire. Whilst trying to be self-aware, it almost seems that Heti tried too hard. Witty, often completely pointless moments, seem to build up to a deep exploration and end with equally pointless statements like “I only read the introductions… that is where it all happens.” It’s difficult to ignore her triumph any time such pieces of ‘wisdom’ are thrust our way. Although effective in small quantities, the number of these devices used begins to grate much too early into the novel.

You can’t have an epiphany by just sitting on a beach or get on a bus to New York and instantaneously find yourself (otherwise we’d all be there right now).

Anastasia Kennedy

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