Sunday, January 27, 2013

Experimental Fiction

There's so much beauty in this world that it's hard to begin. There are no words with which to express my gratitude at having been given this one chance to live — if not Live. Let other people frequent nightclubs in their tight-ass skirts and Live. I'm just sitting here, vibrating in my apartment, at having been give this one chance to live. -Sheila Heti, How Should A Person Be?

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?


  1. Now that I've finished it and had a day to think about it, I know the answer to my question. The question of how Heti gets away with it. The answer is that nobody else writes like Heti.

    "I did value Margaux, but only now did I understand something I had not before: Margaux was not like the stars in the sky. There was only one Margaux -- not Margauxs scattered everywhere, all throughout the darkness. If there was only one of her, there was not going to be a second one. Yet in some strange way, somewhere in side me, I had always believe that if I lost Margaux, I could go out and find another Margaux.

    "Now it all seemed so horrible to me. And didn't it explain everything? But I had never wanted to be one person, or even believed that I was one, so I had never considered the true singularity of anyone else. I said to myself, You are only given one. The one you are given is the one to put a fence around. Life is not a harvest. Just because you have an apple doesn't mean you have an orchard. 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."

  2. 'How is this a novel?'

    Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. But it is.

    I want to follow your blog, Steph.

  3. Oops. I didn't mean that it 'is' a novel. I just meant it is what it is (whatever that may be) but it exists.

    It is.

    1. That whole "genre" thing. It's words, people! Deal with it!

  4. See, blogs need a "like" button!

    So I was listening to the Slate magazine book club about this book ( ... that is a very long URL ...) and apparently after one Slate reviewer "accidentally" referred to the Sheila character in the book as "Sheila Heti," Sheila herself wrote in, like minutes later, and demanded they fix it. Because the character Sheila is not Sheila Heti.

    I'm not sure what to think about that.

    1. Hmm. Perhaps years down the road, she'll wish the technology to facilitate such moments so publicly wasn't so 'there.'

      All I can say is I'm very glad social media was not around when I was in my twenties. Or worse, high school.

      (Also, cringed a bit at the 'minutes later.')

      About the genre thing, Steph, the book from which I quoted today: (ta-da.)

    2. "Also, cringed a bit at the 'minutes later.'" Right?? It's like she's hovering out there, waiting to hear what The People Think. Which is terrible and sad, and I hope is not true, or Sheila Heti didn't get the lessons that Sheila Not Heti learned in the book.

      I'm so glad someone is reading this. It was all echo-chambery before you showed up. Hello(((lo)))((lo))(lo)

    3. Also, I have added Verlyn Klinkenborg, the writer not the rock band, to my Amazon wish list. :)

  5. I think I kinda want to read this now. It does seem a little bit "reality novelish" and I'm not sure I like that idea. It's neither a novel nor a memoir, but rather it sounds like it's just some girl's journal she sent to a publisher who liked her pretty style. I don't know if I agree with writing work like this. The problem for Sheila Heti, not Sheila the character, is that she might only turn out to be a one hit wonder, which isn't something I'd like to have on my resume. There are plenty of actors in Hollywood who have that exact resume!

    1. She has a few other novels out there and a co-written philosophy book. But yeah, I wonder if she'll hang in there.

      I hope you do read it, MM! Something totally different. :)


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