book review

Sheila Heti Does It the Artist’s Way

Illustration: Vulture

Twelve years ago, the writer Sheila Heti published a short list of her favorite “secret self-help” books, offering only the criteria that each book had “actually helped me—they’re both precious and practical.” There was Audition (1978), a manual for aspiring actors by the casting director Michael Shurtleff, who claimed to have “discovered” Barbra Streisand singing in a Greenwich Village dive bar; among other things, the book teaches you how to create a sense of mystery around yourself where there may be none. Another was Diane von Furstenberg’s Book of Beauty (1976), a memoir that doubles as a lifestyle guide, offering tips on skin care and diet. “Furstenberg’s conviction,” writes Heti, “that the desire to look great is not a patriarchal illness, but a natural and fine longing, allows me to, guiltlessly, fuss with my hair.” Among her most reassuring suggestions was The Patient Who Cured His Therapist (1992), co-authored by a psychotherapist named Stanley Siegel who, according to Heti, claims we only feel dysfunctional when we insist on trying to function in the first place.

Heti argued that we have been conditioned to find reading for advice déclassé, that “browsing the self-help section of a bookstore seems as shameful as picking up a porn magazine at 7-Eleven.” The same year she wrote that list, she published her second novel, How Should a Person Be? and began a long experiment with her own kind of self-help, borrowing the genre’s favored rhetorical devices in a way that was playful but never mocking. Her nonfiction book The Chairs Are Where People Go (2011) is a collection of monologues by her friend, the performance artist Misha Glouberman, which offered jocular advice that either seemed to poke fun at the overall endeavor (“Wearing a Suit All the Time Is a Good Way to Quit Smoking”) or were entirely earnest (“To learn to play charades you have to learn to enjoy yourself while trying to communicate with people who don’t understand you and don’t know what you know”).

Even the books within her books often function as self-help for her characters, regardless of actual genre. Heti’s fiction tends to move along a continuum of texts that protagonists — frequently mirror images of the author — look to for help, guidance, and instruction. In How Should a Person Be?, a writer named Sheila consults an anthology titled Important Artists to decide where she should live if she too wants to be an important artist. She adopts “who cares?” as a personal catchphrase, a line cribbed from a self-help book. In Heti’s 2018 novel Motherhood, a woman grappling with the decision to have children relies on an oracular method inspired by the I Ching to make up her mind: “I have to ask,” she says, gathering three coins to flip, “am I like those pale, brittle women writers who never leave the house, who don’t have kids, and who always kind of fascinated and horrified me?” Yes, the coins say. “Is there anything I can do to avoid being that way?” she responds. No.

In her research on self-help literature, Harvard scholar Beth Blum cites Heti’s work as part of a new chapter in the genre’s history: She argues that while a number of contemporary essayists and novelists have borrowed the conventions of self-help to critique the “upward mobility ethic,” Heti’s kind of self-help could be read alongside the “parabolic wisdom of the Hebrew bible” and the assuaging effects of Jewish humor. Heti is not sheepish about her belief that writers and readers alike turn to books for help; she has written that “secret self-help” is a phrase that “can describe almost all literature.” What would it mean then to evaluate her newest novel, Pure Colour, likewise? Would it be déclassé to say this funny and moving novel, about a grieving daughter clinging to beauty to dull or even transcend the pain of loss, is both precious and practical, that it could help you? Maybe so, but — who cares?

While Heti has often drawn on biblical themes in her fiction, Pure Colour has the distinction of opening with a Genesis. The narrator begins by referring to our current state of existence, ravaged by climate change, as just “the first draft of creation.” God is readying for a second stab at this whole thing. He gets out his toolkit and appears — in a departure from the Old Testament — as “three art critics in the sky.” In this creation myth, everyone is a critic, organized under three animal rubrics: Critics born of the bird egg are aesthetes, “interested in beauty, order, harmony and meaning.” Then there are fish critics, who specialize in “structural critique”: for them, “it’s the collective conditions that count.” Lastly, there are bears, who “claim a few people to love and protect” and hold on tight. This typology gives Heti’s creation story the feel of a personality quiz or the zodiac, pulling the reader in as they inevitably try to assign themselves an animal. It also establishes the tone of the novel as a parable whose characters are almost purely symbolic, so ethereally represented that it feels weird whenever they sit in a chair or eat solid food. Every scene unfolds like a dream sequence. The tone is somber and meditative, appropriate for a book about death, but punctuated by Heti’s wry sense of humor so that it never becomes a dreary read. Quite the opposite.

The plot revolves around Mira, an aspiring art critic born of the bird egg. When we meet her, she has just been accepted to an international satellite school of the “American Academy of American Critics,” a snort-inducing dig at the U.S. centrism of literary discourse. The novel begins sometime in the pre-internet age, or as Heti puts it: “They never saw a video of how another girl fixed her hair.” The school is pretentious and strange, its students “stood on desks, declaiming.” Mira meets and falls in love with another student, an American orphan named Annie. Cue another snort. Annie is a “distant fish” and, in accordance with the novel’s schematics, she values communal care and collective well-being. (Confusing given that she is American, unless that is the joke.) Annie finds any sentimentality about family gauchely individualistic, and thus offers little in the way of comfort later on when Mira finds herself reeling from the death of her father.

Mira faults herself for being too much of an aesthetically minded bird when her father, a loving and warm “bear” type, was still alive. She recalls with shame how distracted she was by the Churchill memoirs on his bookshelf when she was meant to be comforting him on his deathbed. “Her love for her father was great,” says the narrator, “but her love for books was greater.” Pure Colour is teeming with the kind of guilt that will be familiar to anyone who has lost a parent or been close to someone who has. Yet Mira does not torture herself over memories of phone calls cut short or unpaid visits home. She blames her vocation, cursing herself for leaving home to attend not just school, but a school for art critics. She had left “behind the traditional and warm values she had known,” she thinks, and “for what? A difficult life on the knife-edge of feelings, since that’s what being an art critic meant.” The novel does not distinguish critics from the artists whose work they write about; both are capable of iciness, of valuing posterity over the needs of those in the here and now. “For art is not made for living bodies—it is made for the cold, eternal soul,” Mira thinks. In one of her classes she decides to practice emotional detachment, quieting the part of her “deeply stirred” by a Manet painting of an asparagus so that she can understand its formal shortcomings with cool-headed rationality.

Heti has said she got the idea to write How Should a Person Be? after reading a book by Otto Rank, the Austrian psychoanalyst who treated Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin. “He had this thing that the problem for the modern artist is that they’re always going neurotically between making art and then life where they collect the experiences,” she told an interviewer. Her desire to transcend that led her to record and transcribe her conversations with her friends in Toronto and even force them to do things (like throw an “ugly painting” contest) so that she could write about them. In Pure Colour, Mira wonders at art’s contradiction: that it can establish a connective thread between yourself and millions of strangers across space and time, yet the process of making it requires extensive time alone and disconnection from the three or four people in your life you care about the most. Work guilt is of course not unique to artists, but the point is that it feels that way to Mira. Like many in the throes of grief, Mira is sure that other people made better choices.

After her father’s passing, the book takes on a trancelike quality, mirroring the experience of living with grief. She spends weeks “just playing the jewel game on her phone.” Finally, she goes out for some fresh air and visits a park she used to frequent with her dad. A tree catches her eye. She pulls one of its leaves to her face. Then the novel goes in a drastically different direction: Mira gets stuck inside the leaf, literally, and finds her father’s spirit there.

The abruptness of this course correction — the interruption of Mira’s Künstlerroman — feels true to the experience of losing someone and the way it can render all other plots secondary. Nonetheless, this turn, and its duration, will test the patience of readers who expect the breezy conversational realism of How Should a Person Be? (Mira is in that leaf for a while.) Still, I found in the back-and-forth between Mira and her late father’s spirit something of the funny, observant email exchanges of that previous novel. I also found their ruminations on morality — helpful?

Mira says she would want to return after death to see if her art had stood the test of time, if it is “exhibited fifty, seventy-five, a hundred years from now.” Her dad replies, “So you want to return to earth to google yourself?” Good point. The surreal leaf detour gives Mira the chance to hear father’s voice again, a turn of events summed up in a curious line: “She had made him speak!” Who is the “she” here? I do not know that we can assume that is Mira. I think “she” is the author of this first draft of existence. I think “she” is Heti. It is through the leaf, and all that it enables, that Pure Colour responds to Mira’s skepticism of art’s powers: If she once believed that art was a selfish calling, one that pulled her away from familial intimacy, she later finds that art gives the ability to forge that very intimacy anew, and in turn, to move on.

Pure Colour is an almost incoherent novel, a story unfolding in a world at times illuminated only by Christmas lights. Its strangeness might tire readers used to Heti’s more grounded and linear fiction. The reward is that you could actually emerge feeling better. “My basic premise is that in life, you live forever,” the spirit of Mira’s father tells her, “because as soon as you die, you don’t realize you’re dead, so you’re kind of always alive, so the thing is, you shouldn’t worry about yourself.” That is strangely true and weirdly comforting. Heti’s insistence on keeping utility and care at the forefront of her work — her defense of art as a therapeutic — is perhaps more radical than it gets credit for. It is okay to come to books feeling vulnerable, directionless, and in need of help, she says. Everyone is already doing that. They’re just doing it in secret.

Sheila Heti Does It the Artist’s Way