How Should a Person Be? (Heti)

How Should a Person Be?
Sheila Heti, 2012
Henry Holt and Co.
320 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780805094725

Reeling from a failed marriage, Sheila, a twentysomething playwright, finds herself unsure of how to live and create.

When Margaux, a talented painter and free spirit, and Israel, a sexy and depraved artist, enter her life, Sheila hopes that through close—sometimes too close—observation of her new friend, her new lover, and herself, she might regain her footing in art and life.

Using transcribed conversations, real emails, plus heavy doses of fiction, the brilliant and always innovative Sheila Heti crafts a work that is part literary novel, part self-help manual, and part bawdy confessional. It's a totally shameless and dynamic exploration into the way we live now, which breathes fresh wisdom into the eternal questions: What is the sincerest way to love? What kind of person should you be? (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—December 25, 1976
Where—Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Education—University of Toronto; National
   Theatre School of Canada.
Currently—lives in Toronto, Ontario

Heti was born in Toronto, Ontario. Her parents are Hungarian Jewish immigrants. She studied art history and philosophy at the University of Toronto and playwriting at the National Theatre School of Canada. She works as Interviews Editor at The Believer where she also conducts interviews regularly, and she wrote a column on acting for Maisonneuve. Her brother is the comedian David Heti.

Heti's novel, Ticknor, was released in 2005. The novel's main characters are based on real people: William Hickling Prescott and George Ticknor, although the facts of their lives are altered. Her short story collection, The Middle Stories, was published in 2001 Canada when she was twenty-four, and by McSweeney's in the United States, and translated into German, French, Spanish and Dutch. In 2011, she published The Chairs are Where The People Go which she wrote with her friend, Misha Glouberman. The New Yorker called it "a triumph of conversational philosophy" and named it one of the Best Books of 2011.

Heti's book How Should a Person Be? was published in 2010, (2012 in the U.S.)—in which she describes as book of constructed reality, based on recorded interviews with her friends, particularly the painter Margaux Williamson. It was chosen by the New York Times as one of the 100 Best Books of 2012 and by James Wood of The New Yorker as one of the best books of the year. It was also included on year-end lists on Salon, New Republic, New York Observer, and more. In her 2007 interview with Dave Hickey for Believer, she noted, "Increasingly I’m less interested in writing about fictional people, because it seems so tiresome to make up a fake person and put them through the paces of a fake story. I just—I can’t do it."
Other activities

• Heti is the creator of Trampoline Hall, a popular monthly lecture series based in Toronto and New York, at which people speak on subjects outside their areas of expertise. The New Yorker praised the series for "celebrating eccentricity and do-it-yourself inventiveness". It has sold out every show since its inception in December 2001.

• For the early part of 2008, Heti kept a blog called The Metaphysical Poll, where she posted the sleeping dreams people were having about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton during the 2008 primary season, which readers sent in.

• Heti was an actress as a child, and as a teenager appeared in shows directed by Hillar Liitoja, the founder and Artistic Director of the experiemental DNA Theatre.

• Heti appears in Margaux Williamson's 2010 film, Teenager Hamlet.

• Heti plays Lenore Doolan in Leanne Shapton's book, Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry. (From Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
I do not think this novel knows everything, but Sheila Heti does know something about how many of us, right now, experience the world, and she has gotten that knowledge down on paper, in a form unlike any other novel I can think of.
David Haglund - New York Times Book Review

How Should a Person Be? teeters between youthful pretension and irony in ways that are as old as Flaubert’s Sentimental Education...but Ms. Heti manages to give Sheila’s struggle a contemporary and particular fee.... How Should a Person Be? reveals a talented young voice of a still inchoate generation.
Kay Hymowitz - Wall Street Journal

A perfect summer read. It is also one of the bravest, strangest, most original novels I’ve read this year…. We care about Sheila’s plight, but the souls in limbo here are, ultimately, our own. With so many references to the world outside of the fiction, this novel demands to know: Can art inform our lives, and tell us how to be?
Christopher Boucher - Boston Globe

Brutally honest and stylistically inventive, cerebral and sexy, this ‘novel from life’ employs a grab bag of literary forms and narrative styles on its search for the truth…meandering and entertaining exploration of the big questions, rousting aesthetic, moral, religious and ethical concerns most novels wouldn’t touch.
Michael David Lukas - San Francisco Chronicle

[Sheila Heti] has an appealing restlessness, a curiosity about new forms, and an attractive freedom from pretentiousness or cant…How Should a Person Be? offers a vital and funny picture of the excitements and longueurs of trying to be a young creator in a free, late-capitalist Western City…This talented writer may well have identified a central dialectic of twenty-first-century postmodern being.
James Wood - The New Yorker

I read this eccentric book in one sitting, amazed, disgusted, intrigued, sometimes titillated I’ll admit to that, but always in awe of this new Toronto writer who seems to be channeling Henry Miller one minute and Joan Didion the next.  Heti’s book is pretty ugly fiction, accent on the pretty.
Alan Cheuse - NPR

[A] breakthrough novel...Just as Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps (written at the same age) was an explosive and thrilling rejoinder to the serious, male coming-of-age saga exemplified during her era by Sartre’s The Age of Reason, Heti’s book exuberantly appropriates the same, otherwise tired genre to encompass female experience. How Should a Person Be?’s deft, picaresque construction, which lightly-but-devastatingly parodies the mores of Toronto’s art scene, has more in common with Don Quixote than with Lena Dunham’s HBO series “Girls” or the fatuous blogs and social media it will, due to its use of constructed reality, inevitably be compared with…Like [Kathy] Acker, [Heti] is a brilliant, original thinker and an engaging writer.
Chris Kraus - LA Review of Books

Toronto-based Heti and her real-life friends, including Misha Glouberman with whom she wrote a previous book (Where the Chairs Are Where the People Go, 2011), are central characters in this meandering novel that attempts to erase the line between fact and fiction. Sheila is a recently divorced playwright...attempting to finish a commissioned play.... She spends time with her friend Margaux, an artist who lives with Misha.... For a while, Sheila and Margaux fall into a pattern of heavy partying and druggy debauchery until Margaux pulls away. Sheila worries she's a narcissist, not without good reason perhaps...[and] leaves Toronto for New York, but she's no happier there.... Pretentious navel-gazing without the humor of HBO's Girls, which covers similar terrain.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. How Should a Person Be? is constructed as part fiction; part play; part confession. How has this mixture of genres shaped your understanding of the novel and how do the different elements converge to create the story?

2. Describe Sheila. What kind of person is she at the beginning of the novel, and what kind of person does she set out to be? What aae some things that she does in order to become a “complete person?” Do you think she succeeds? Why or why not?

3. Why is Sheila so drawn to Margaux when they first meet? How would you describe their relationship and what makes them such a dynamic pair?

4. The concept of beauty is highly subjective, especially in the context of this book. Margaux says that there are things that are “not ugly for the world,” but “looks like death” to her. What is your definition of "ugly?" What is the significance of the ugly painting contest?

5. Israel seems to possess an intoxicating power over Sheila. Why is she so consumed by him? How is she finally able to free herself? Why do you think it was important to Sheila to cut ties with Israel?

6. How are the ideas of fate and freedom manifested in the novel? Are our lives dictated by fate or is fate a self-fulfilling prophesy? How does Sheila reconcile her fear of her fate and her desire to live a meaningful life?

7. Religion is a major conceit throughout the novel. Sheila often finds solace in religious references and comparisons. What significance does Sheila find in these references to Moses and the Israelites? Are religion and fate bound together?

8. Margaux claims that boundaries allow you to love someone. Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?

9. When are human beings cheaters, and how did Sheila’s cheating affect Margaux? How do you distinguish between truly being and merely appearing to be?

10. Towards the end of the book, the author includes one chapter that is isolated from the rest of the narrative titled “The Gravedigger.” What is the significance of this story and how does it relate to the rest of the book?

11. In this novel, art takes on various forms—the conversations Sheila records with Margaux; the  work done at the salon; even the actual book is a form of art. For Heti, artistry and life seem intertwined. Is art a depiction of life, or is it the other way around?

12. Does the book answer the question of how a person should be? Do you think there is an answer? How do you want to be?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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