Saturday, November 7, 2015

How Should a Person Be?, by Sheila Heti

When I was a small boy, my father told me that it was important for a person to be able to laugh at himself. On my first day of school, the teacher gave us all name tags. On my tag, which she  pressed to my small chest, she spelled my name wrong. All during recess, I walked from child to child, pointing out the misspelling and laughing at my own name.

I couldn't understand why all the children running and shouting and playing dodge ball thought I was the weird one. I was doing what's important, after all.

Sheila, the viewpoint character in How Should a Person Be?, is in her twenties, but she's still trying to do what I did at age six: find out what's important to do and do it. Her rules don't include "Be able to laugh at yourself." If they did, perhaps this book would never have been written! Instead, she's trying to create something important, and she thinks that you judge how important a thing is by how intensely it makes you feel.

It takes a masochistic relationship with a man, the prospect of ruining her best friendship with a woman, and discarding mementos of her childhood to make her realize that there is no one way a person should be, and that she doesn't have to be a leader to be important. Each person is uniquely valuable, even Sheila.

I could sympathize with her desire to feel everything intensely, even if it hurts. That's what my early twenties were like too. And sometimes you have to cross boundaries and do ugly things just once, to find out what it's like. I also loved the way Sheila recognized people spewing theories as "just another man in the world who wanted to teach me something." It led to her realization that she had become that guy--like me on the playground, trying to show I could laugh at myself.

All through the book, however, as a feminist, every time I read about her wanting to be used by her sex partner, Israel, I wanted to shake her. Don't you know, I said in my head, that women and men already went through all that, so you don't have to? (And as a fellow Jew: what is up with naming the guy Israel when your Jewish identity shows up in the way you speak and the metaphors you use throughout the book? Seems like some unopened baggage there, still.)

So, I ended the book thinking that all the really interesting parts of Sheila's story begin when this book ends. I don't know whether that's a reflection on the book or on me. I'm glad I read it, just as I'm glad I lived my young adult life. And I would never want to do it again.

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