Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be? — A Review

by Nadine Bachan

Published at 2011-01-27

Sheila Heti was TEC’s second adopt-an-author at last September’s Word On The Street Festival. I enjoyed reading Sheila’s earlier works — a short story collection, The Middle Stories, and her first work of fiction, Ticknor — and I was eager to read her third book, a (mostly) fiction tale in which the character “Sheila” explores the title question, How Should A Person Be?
This was a difficult read for me. Sheila’s narrative is unstable. Her use of voice, pace, subject matter, and even punctuation is flurried in the erratic nature of this story. I appreciate experimental writing; Ticknor is innovative and well-written in its stream-of-consciousness approach. However, Ticknor holds focus, progression, and relevant thought — qualities that How Should A Person Be? severely lacks.
Any elements of standard form are buried in Sheila’s chaotic philosophizing. The intensity and incoherence of some of her rants made me physically ill. (A word of advice: Do not read this while sitting in a jostling subway car. Although, reading it while sitting in bed at home made me no less nauseated.)
I was able to determine the main narrative: This is the story of Sheila. Sheila has been commissioned to write a play. She is unable to write, which forces her to re-evaluate herself. However, she finds she can’t quite do this either. So, with the aid of a tape recorder, she looks to (and at) the people in her life — including the characters of Margaux, Misha, Sholem, Israel, and Ulrich.
The reader is thrown head-first into Sheila’s unfiltered musings on her experiences, relationships, emotions, and — most of all — her all-encompassing cluelessness. Her warring identities are on display. Sheila is a self-doubter spinning in circles — a frustrated writer, a meticulously-skilled yet exploited lover, and an uncertain friend.
The story is a dizzying voyage through Sheila’s conscience and decisions and, in the end, Sheila finds out that … well … I just don’t know! This is HER journey.  The reader is simply along for the ride regardless of whether or not we want to go with her into those dark and confused realms only she can comprehend.
What’s more, her only consistency and only comprehendible moment of revelation was, oddly, quite predictable. I won’t reveal what or who, but I will say this: the dedication is the giveaway.
How should a person be? I know well enough that this question can’t be easily or quickly answered, if at all. Sheila might have tried, but I can’t be sure of what her aspirations were for this story, failed or not.