Books have changed. I'm not about to launch into a treatise on the state and/or identity of modern literature (the rise of “girlishness” as antithetical to feminism, the role of non-certified organic fruit as plot device in war novels, etc.,) but would rather like to think about the surfaces of books, the artifacts themselves. Yes, they're pretty now, as evidenced above. And shorter, occasionally. But too it seems that books today have far more blurbs from more great writers than ever. In fact, you might say “it seems that books today...yada yada... than a Barnes & Noble Cafe mural full of delicious smelling renderings of Whitman and Dostoyevsky both apparently not speaking over steaming cups of iced-skim frappuccinos. Or, you know, positing something brilliant, in just a second. And that number, along with its equivalent degree of celebrity and greatness, is increasing and attributing to so-and-so all the time, as, inversely (and curiously), the former breadth of biographic information re: the author seems continually to wane. "Sheila Heti is a writer who lives in Toronto," declares the back page of How Should A Person Be?. Good enough. And might I add, Ross Vanbeek is an investment banker who lives in Chicago. Who is Ross Vanbeek? He's my friend, who lives in Chicago.
Speaking of so-and-so's, I'd like to put myself in someone like Margaret Atwood's shoes for one devilishly comfortable moment and imagine receiving in the mail a copy of a book I think I might have read and said something about on Twitter once, a while back, who knows, and then, upon turning the book over so as not to stain its cover with my coffee, spotting, sure enough, my name next to David Shield's or Stephen King's or something. Well, no, not “Stephen King's or something,” I suppose. Unless he too was recorded, unbeknownst to him, rattling on about Shiela Heti during one of his now infamous 10 minute, twice daily breaks from writing for a cigarette and chance to sing the praises of Canadian literature from the vertiginous third story of his surely haunted house. Which might be fitting. For as readers will, I predict, be impatient to discover, Sheila Heti, author and protagonist of a book Miranda July calls "A new kind of book," spends a great deal of her “new book” tape recording conversations between her and her real-life friends, in effort to expose herself, it seems, to who she is, or should be, in the moment, in relation to (or as a product of) the people who her friends already are, without a doubt in Heti's self-consciously encumbered mind. A mind and "posture," if you like, engaging some critics to chastise Heti's heady prose as nothing more essentially, and contradictorily, than that of an unaware, self-congratulatory hipster in a sandwich board, advertising her unique brand of precocity while lying on a beach chair. Such responses to a fictionalized memoir of this size, by which I mean not page numbers or (clearly) supplemental information about the book like, say, its author, but said author's unparalleled daring and audacity as less a creative writer than a writer of admission, seem entirely to miss and miss out on what she's up to. Of course Heti is trying on hats! 300 pages worth, in fact. And she's doing it to admit us, along with all our fears, our wants, and our fears of what we want. How Should A Person Be?, like Wes Anderson's mostly mis-regarded films, isn't untouchably precious, but in true awe of itself, attempting to maintain a balance not of charm backed by indifference, but of ugliness endured, presumed, but most importantly experienced, begat by hardship; traits Heti's Jungian analyst (please, let's save our eye roll for a less ambiguous author we can collectively throw up on with some confidence) assures her are unique only insofar as one's life can be called unique by virtue of its being, foremost, meaningful.
But for the sake of argument, Slate Magazine, who among us hasn't posed for life's camera? Like earlier this afternoon, for instance, I pretended to be listening as Joe relayed the history of the American alternative rock band Yo La Tengo. "Yo-yo whata?" I remember thinking at one point, "Like the kids show?" Briefly, in-between thoughts to myself of what I might enjoy for lunch, yo-yos, and what I should be doing with my hands, so as
not to unintentionally express disapproval with the band's early '90s move to Matador Records.
Perhaps, as Martin pointed out, after reproaching my decision to read a book about and (arguably) for young women, like a father disappointed and bewildered by his son's decision to play tap dance, hostility toward Heti's book has more to do with the book's difficulty, especially in terms of being put into a category. However, I will say that How Should A Person Be?, contrary to winding me into a ball of dread, as one might understandably assume, made me laugh out
loud on nearly every other page, as if adhering to a timer set for
watering tomatoes. And yes, per usual, I was alone. And so, once again it seems the funniest
books are rarely shelved in HUMOR, the most direct most often absent from NONFICTION. By the way, while I've just now jeopardized how
seriously you'll take this, click here for more on our New and Improved Nonfiction Section!
So, in summation, thank heavens for blurbs! Can you appreciate how at once dull and fraught with indecision buying books was
in the past, with just a picture of some author and an excerpt of their
writing? As if that would seal the deal! Imagine you this time, single at a
bar in South Minneapolis, flirting by default with the man or woman
three stools to your right. Do you seek first the opinion of your best
friend/literary genius at your side, or take it straight from the horse's mouth of the guy/girl out in public wearing Vibram FiveFingers? Done and done.