It’s a common observation that Shelia Heti could easily be a character in Lena Dunham’s excellent Girls. Both explore the experiences, concerns and aspirations of relatively privileged (though they rarely feel it) young women trying to make sense of the world. They have much more social and political freedom than any previous generation and are kind of aware of the debt they owe feminism, but (particularly in Dunham’s fiction) feel the cold winds of economic recession particularly harshly. Consequently, they are easily misconstrued as ungrateful, self-absorbed and narcissistic.
And in both cases, there is an explosion of female sexuality no longer so brutally denied and suppressed by patriarchy. Heti opens How Should a Person Be? bragging about her blow job technique, but before you get too excited, ‘Aside from blow jobs, though, I’m through with being the perfect girlfriend’. Perhaps she’s trying to shock, but I suspect she really does get off on giving blow jobs. More surprising is her choosing to be in an abusive (albeit mostly long distance) relationship with the most virile Israel. Here she clearly gets off on sexual humiliation, exposing herself to a stranger in a coffee shop, for example, while writing Israel a pornographic letter. Of course Israel’s physical absence makes the whole thing safe and so Heti remains apparently in control. But only apparently, because looking up from her letter to see the target of her exposure replaced with a chubby, giggling boy makes the humiliation far too real.
Not only is she prepared to look a little shallow, at times she risks straying into pretension too: ‘Destiny became like an opaque, demanding, poorly communicative parent, and I was its child, ever trying to please it, to figure out what it wanted from me.’ Yet this description of destiny is key to understanding Sheila Heti’s thesis on how to discover how to be.
Heti’s strong commitment to her Jewish heritage prevents her from asking the truly fundamental questions — like why be Jewish — so her harsh words on Buddhism stand out, ‘Buddha was the one who turned his back on the suffering of the world to sweeten himself with good feelings’. Sheila Heti’s ancestors certainly did not ‘sweeten themselves with good feelings,’ but followed Moses into the desert where they baked matzo, made with their own saliva, on their backs. These are the images Heti meditates upon when seeking out her identity. When Solomon, a frustratingly obtuse Jewish shaman who runs a copy shop, tells her ‘There’s nothing to think! This is our religion!’ Sheila Heti wants to believe him, but he turns out to be ‘just another man who wanted to teach me something’.
Throughout her journey Heti encounters and rejects men who want to teach her something. Yet ultimately how she decides to be, is a person eager to please the obtuse and abusive. Heti’s desire to please Israel turns out to be a crude a metaphor for her desire to do right by her ancestors. Both behave like that ‘opaque, demanding, poorly communicative parent’ and offer constant humiliation in place of answers, but humiliation brings satisfaction.