Sheila, the narrator of Sheila Heti’s provocative “novel from life,” How Should a Person Be? (Henry Holt, $25.00), has been commissioned by a feminist theater company in Toronto to write a play. The theater assures her that while the play need not be feminist, it does have to be about women. Telling herself that she “could just as easily lead the people out of bondage” with commissioned words as with words that come directly from herself, Sheila, who constantly compares herself to Moses while having an affair with a man named “Israel,” accepts the job. She admits, though, to knowing nothing about women and being deeply confused both about how or what to write and about how to live: “I felt like I was the tin man, the lion, and the scarecrow in one: I could not feel my heart, I had no courage, I could not use my brain.”
How Should a Person Be? is the record of Sheila’s struggle to find heart, courage, and brain — to write the play and live her life. It also is that play, a compelling five-act drama constructed from emails, recorded conversations, anecdotes, dreams, and parables. Utterly contemporary, wickedly clever, and profoundly irreverent, How Should a Person Be? is also surprisingly religious and deeply feminist. Sheila, who begins as a neurotic lost soul, ends on a note of transcendence as she gives up grandiosity, learns to value her friendship with another woman, and embraces being herself: “no less ugly than the rest.”
Critics have marveled at the “from life” aspect of How Should a Person Be? Heti has indeed drawn freely on her own experiences to create the “Sheila” of her novel, using actual emails and letters to develop her tale. The technique is an aspect of the novel’s superficial appeal; but this surface glitter is valuable only insofar as it reveals the depths of thought and feeling that infuse the book. Far more original and interesting is the use of Old Testament narrative and Jewish story-telling techniques to flesh out Sheila’s ambitions and achievements. And though Heti doesn’t tell it, the Hasidic story of Reb Zusya — who spent his whole life trying to be Moses, and then was asked by God in heaven why he wasn’t Zusya — seems to inform the entire novel.
For Sheila, largely through her friendship with the emotionally honest and outspoken visual artist Margaux, discovers how to be herself, neither a “man on a mountaintop” nor “another man who wants to teach me something.” “You are only given one” she finally sees. “You have an apple. Put a fence around it. Once you have put a fence around everything you value, then you have the total circle of your heart.” In quietly liberating herself from all her false idols — sex, fame, even art — Sheila also — as she had hoped — succeeds in leading her readers out of their own forms of bondage as well.
Joyce Zonana teaches writing and literature at Borough of Manhattan Community College. She is the author of Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey, and is currently at work on a translation of a novel by Henri Bosco.