Sunday 9 February 2014

how should a person be?

'How should a person be?' by Sheila Heti
I got this from the library after a glowing review online somewhere, I even waited in a queue for it. I started reading and my first thought was, 'what is this crap and how did it get published'. Then I thought maybe she was just telling some random anecdote to illustrate a point and would go on to something more significant. It was very stream-of-consciousness style and had something of 'On The Road' about it, but I don't mean that in a good way; it meandered randomly through events, telling yet more anecdotes and musing on some half baked philosophy about what is important in life. 

It is the story (vaguely) of her friendship with Margaux, and I suppose at least she does come finally to realise how important this person is to her, how important friendship is, but it is so utterly self-indulgent and inward looking that I hardly cared. She is both the victim and the perpetrator in some not very healthy relationships. She is so aimless that this takes over the story and you never know where it is going, if anywhere. It is also the story of her attempts to write a play, and the conversations in the book are laid out as if it is a script. I quite liked that and you could almost visualise it being performed, but it didn't make the characters any more interesting. It was a bit like reading a rather trite and tedious blog. Occasionally she had an interesting way of describing something, mostly when she stopped trying to be pretentious. This is nicely understated:

"We could see no trees and we could see no mountains from where we lived. When we looked out the window we saw cars, we saw people, we saw traffic lights and buildings just like ours. Sometimes the past came to greet us, and there were two policemen sitting atop their horses, walking down the side street I was living on, and I woke up to the sound of the horses in the road. I raised myself in bed and looked out the window. When a car came by, the policemen pulled on the horses' reins and the horses stopped, and the policemen and the horses waited patiently for the car to go by, one horse shaking its tail in the road." (p.141)

But much of it was more like this, on finding the tape recorder, and it just feels like she is trying too hard to:

"It has long been known to me that certain objects want you as much as you want them. These are the ones that become important, the objects you hold dear. The others fade from your life entirely. You wanted them, but they did not want you in return.
As the beginnings of a shower mottled the street, I whispered low into the tape recorder's belly. I recorded my voice and played it back. I spoke to it tenderly and heard my tenderness returned." (p.56-7)

I started off actively disliking this book, so maybe it's an achievement that I read the whole thing, but I was only lifted to the level of not-really-caring-much. Lots of 'names' on the back seemed to admire it ("beguiling" "idiosyncratic") so maybe I missed something, or maybe it's the middle aged fuddy-duddy in me that finds young people's existential angst so tedious ... get over yourself. Whatever. 
(If you like stories of female friendship Ann Patchett's 'Truth and Beauty' is much much better.)

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