On a whim, I picked up Heti's 2012 book from the local library. I'd been hearing things about it, mostly glowing, that intrigued me. Like this review from the New York Times: Funny…odd, original, and nearly unclassifiable…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. And from NPR's Alan Cheuse, whose reviews I read often enough that I feel like he's a personal friend: 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.
How can you not want to read a book like that? But at the same time, I worried I would find it too annoying to finish: Sexy city twenty-somethings who want to change the world with their art? Admit it: you just threw up in your mouth a little.
So yay for libraries. I promised myself I'd read fifty pages and return it if I wasn't hooked: no loss except an hour or two of reading time. Twenty-hour hours later I'm halfway through, so I guess I'm hooked.
|Sheila Heti and herself|
But I'm also kind of angry. Or jealous. How does Heti get away with it? I've been wanting/trying to write "a novel from life" for years, and apparently it's one of those things that's Just Not Done. I mean, you can write the thing, but nobody will read it. This is what I have been told, and it seems to be true. How did Heti manage to break that rule? She writes it, and not only is it published, it's a literary darling. I'm not sure it's an actual bestseller yet, but it did make the New York Times "Notable Book of the Year" list. It generated this page of breathless reviews, nearly as long as the book itself.
And it's just ... like, someone's journal. The journal of a clever, narcissistic twenty-something. The book is a novel in the sense that it has pages, events, and characters, but it sure as hell doesn't have a plot. I'd love to dispense with plot: I'm terrible at plot. But everyone else has to write plot: why not Heti? Her characters, too, are not fictional. The narrator is Sheila Heti. Her best friend in the book is Margaux, who is also her best friend in life. Their dialogue is a transcript from tape-recorded conversations. That's about as nonfictional as dialogue gets. How is this a novel?
Is this the wave of the future? Maybe reality TV has done this to us: we'll have reality novels now. And as with reality TV, the reality novel will be some sort of mashup between reality and fantasy. And do we like it? We hate reality TV. I mean, we lap it up, but try finding a person who will admit to liking it. This book, too: as much-discussed as it is, as difficult to put down, not too many real-person reviewers seem to like it.
Have you written any experimental fiction? What form did it take? Have you read any experimental novels that set a course for a new kind of fiction? Did they inspire you? Did they irritate you? And of course, if you've read this strange little book ... what did you think?