Recently I was asked by the blog The Writers’ Bloc to write a piece for their The Book That… column. It feels pretty darn special when someone sends you an email out of the blue asking you to write something, let me tell you. But as soon as I started to think about it, I knew what I was going to write about. When people ask me about my favourite books, I can talk endlessly about Revolutionary Road (including in this post for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves), I talk about Just Kids, I talk about Floundering, Barracuda and The Corrections. But when I was asked to talk about a book that was special to me, I couldn’t look past HHhH. I wrote a pretty hyperbolic post about it here, but I’ve also been thinking a lot about that book ever since, so this chance to write about it again was a real joy. Because HHhH was the book that changed the way I think about my writing. As I say in the article, just before I read HHhH I was having a bit of a writing crisis. I know it sounds like a very privileged crisis to have - and I fully accept that it is - but it’s in my head and it drives me crazy.
I’ve written on and off for the last fifteen years. It’s helped me get over each of the actual real crisis’ I’ve had in my life. As someone who can be pretty rubbish at expressing my feelings verbally, writing is my way of getting it all out. Of sorting it through in my head and from stopping my brain from exploding. I also just really bloody love it, but I’ve always been very shy about it. It’s a big deal for me to put it out into the world for people to read and judge and enjoy or not. I never studied writing or literature at university. I studied lots of useful things for my work as well as for my writing, but I’ve never had a chance to feel validated as a ‘writer’ until recently. I was asked to speak at the Emerging Writers’ Festival and people like The Writers’ Bloc approached me to write for them. It’s slowly turning and it’s terrifying but also incredibly wonderful. In The Writers’ Bloc piece on HHhH I talk about how I’d perhaps been reading far too much about the backlash towards the memoir fetish. It’s a very Gen Y problem, I’ll admit: what right do we have to keep inserting ourselves into other people’s stories? Do we really have anything worthy to say when we’re so young? But then Laurent Binet turns around and literally makes me gasp by using this technique in an incredibly inventive, authentic and wonderful way. It made me realise there’s no need to apologise for the way you write if you write well.
How Should A Person Be? often feels like a response to the Gen Y memoir fetish. Two young, female artists (Sheila and Margeaux - based very much on the author and her best friend), finding their way in relationships, friendships, work, art, balance. It’s been described as Lena Dunham’s Girls for the page and it does often feel like it is (read this article in the New York Times for more on this). Some of the most interesting elements of the plot come in exploring the privilege of being young, white, free from real financial difficulty. For example, when talking to two friends who have recently returned from Africa, Sheila asks what motivated them to go. Ben responds:
“I got fed up with my own narcissism basically. I just felt like I was being narcissistic. And it was becoming really difficult to separate my desire to create art from my narcissism."
So Ben and Andrew go to Africa. But they come back relatively unchanged:
“You step for one minute out of your privilege, your stresses and concerns, and you see something that’s worth responding to. But then you come back, and it’s a couple months later, and it’s like What was that? You’re inundated with - or I am, anyways - like there’s no room in my life for anything. I can barely keep up the standard of living I need. The idea of adding to that concern for others and making time for others is really daunting.”
It opens up a discussion amongst the group of friends about class, gender, race but almost immediately descends into talking about the work of Kurt Vonnegut. Like Dunham, Heti is very clever in her ability to explore the Brooklyn effect (much like Adelle Waldman in The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, which I wrote about here), despite the novel taking place in Toronto. Gen Y are too often accused of being lazy and self-absorbed, but here are three great examples of where we hold a mirror up to ourselves. The ridiculousness of quoting Kurt Vonnegut in a discussion of feeling helpless about poverty, sickness and war in Africa is a brilliant example of this.
The difference between writing for the page rather than writing for the screen is that it gives the writer a further chance to experiment. Sheila, the narrator, is a struggling playwright who spends much of the novel wrestling with the work and her abilities. Heti visualises this by using a very clever but simple formatting technique: all conversations in the book are set out as if it were two actors speaking. Not only does this make it easier on the eyes of the reader by breaking up the text, it is also a clever device that allows Heti to throw away with all the ‘he said’, ‘she said’ and boring attempts to say this exact thing in any number of ways that the thesaurus suggests to the author.
But like often in Girls, How Should A Person Be? is the wonderful exploration of what it means to be a feminist in this era and how our generation wrestle with it. As I wrote about in this post about Judy Blume and Lena Dunham In Conversation (which is indeed edited by Sheila Heti), this is something that Dunham articulates incredibly well. But there is a wonderful phrase in this novel that I found incredibly powerful: “He was just another man who wanted to teach me something.” There are several incidents of this punchy writing within the novel. Going back to the discussion around Africa, Sheila uses this as a chance to talk about the twisted morality of the men around her:
"All the white men I know are going to Africa. They want to tell the stories of African women. They are so serious. They lectured me for my lack of morality."
But the killer for me is when everything seems to be too difficult and Sheila tries running away to a different city to escape. Sheila’s world is a rather insular one: it revolves around a small group of people, all of whom spend most of their time looking inwardly in both their work and emotionally. A few days into her new life in New York, Sheila soon she realises that a new city will not finish her play for her, stop her boyfriend’s sometimes deranged behaviour, or help her reunite with her best friend. This incredible idea of the city as a masculine figure imposing on the naive young woman was breathtaking to me, along with the realisation that in trying to move away from her issues to solve them, Sheila herself “was just another man who wanted to teach me something.” As someone who adores travelling but who has also used moving to new or old places as a way of escaping, this hit me over the head like some sort of self-help book from the sky.
Finally, I wanted to talk about this wonderful passage from right at the beginning of the novel. A lot of what happens to Sheila in the novel is a result of her marriage breakdown. In describing this period of transition, Heti describes wonderfully the frustration we often feel that life is not going as quickly as we want it to. Those odd periods of your life where you’re just counting the days, waiting for a change to come.
That month, I experienced a tense idleness waiting for my new life to begin. It was a month of impatience, of stillness, like being set in amber. A certain smell followed me everywhere, like the smell of rotten candy. My insides were queasy. My skin was always sweating. …
Every morning I woke up beside my husband and looked around to see if the feeling was still there; it always was. And I would get up for the day, exhausted by it already, sticky with the same tense idleness I had felt back then.
Though I can’t quite yet talk about it, I’m going through a period like this myself right now. I have a tough month ahead of me and although there’s much to look forward to within it, I’m also counting the days until it’s over. It seems a silly way to live: surely life is too short to wish bits of it to be over. But we’ve all been there. It happens. So hearing someone not only talk about it be articulate it so well was a relief in itself. But then Heti follows up by also describing the relief that comes when that period is over, the idleness shaken off and the new stage begins and I just wanted to hug the book:
I slept on and off all day, exhausted, like someone who has been washed ashore on an island, safe and still and dry. The whipping about in the waves that had propelled me into my husband’s arms, through our marriage, then suddenly away from him, had died down; the sea was calm and rolled back. I stood up on the sand and looked about me. I was alone, and I was free.
I’m not saying that How Should A Person Be? is a perfect book. There were parts that grabbed me and parts that left me indifferent. I certainly found it interesting and appreciated how Heti was able to experiment with form without detracting from the flow of the novel. I certainly feel like Heti has written an important book for my generation, but I’m not sure that others will necessarily connect with it so vividly. Somehow it lacked something that I can’t quite put my finger on, but that’s ok. Because this is another book that has kept me thinking. About the characters and the ideas they explore, but also about Heti as a writer and her decisions and motivations, much the same as I still think about HHhH. It’s not the perfect novel as a reader, but it’s certainly an interesting one as a writer, something I’ll happily keep exploring.
Sometimes - like when you manage to fit this many emotions into what’s meant to be a simple book review - you just need to treat yourself. I may be waiting, pausing, counting the days, but hell, I can eat rice pudding for breakfast. Here’s a recipe from one of my absolute favourite food blogs, What Should I Eat For Breakfast Today? Only fuelling my obsession with starting the day by eating well, Marta’s blog has beautiful recipes alongside gorgeous photos of her travels. This milk rice was quick and easy to make (although take her advice and keep stirring! I lost a serving’s worth to the bottom of the pan) and using yoghurt to thicken it rather than cornstarch as many other recipes dictate was clever and creamy, a great combo. I topped this with another great idea - dried apricot jam. About a year ago now I discovered something new about myself: making jam is my new jam. I love it. It’s simple, healing cooking. But what do you do when stone fruit season is over? Take the advice of my friend Yasmeen from Wandering Spice and soak dried apricots overnight and use them to make this spicy jam. I only used half a cup of sugar, rather than the quantity listed here, because I like my jam tart, not sweet. It makes a much more stodgy consistency, but it holds together well and still preserves nicely. I’d love to play around and see if it could work with dried cherries or figs too - but I’ll keep that up my sleeve for the next time I need a treat.