An artist’s task “is not so much to solve problems as to propose questions,” the fiction writer Donald Barthelme once said. “The search is for a question that will generate light and heat.” By that yardstick, Sheila Heti’s new “novel from life,” “How Should a Person Be?,’’ is a perfect summer read. It is also one of the bravest, strangest, most original novels I’ve read this year.
Heti breaks the rules of fiction right from the get-go. “I know that personality is just an invention of the news media. I know that character exists from the outside alone,” she writes in the prologue. “So how do you build your soul?” Sentences like this seem as if they should be out of bounds — they are too bold, too direct — but that’s exactly the point; Heti’s devil-may-care approach gives the book a lightness and buoyancy, which instill the questions at hand with that much more weight.
Sheila, the heroine of the novel, is lost. A divorced 20-something playwright living in Toronto, she is struggling to finish a new play while working as a hairdresser to make ends meet. Behind her toil on the play lie larger questions about the purpose of art and the role of an artist. Sheila has, to put it simply, lost her place in the world and her notion of how to be.
Enter Margaux, a painter who thinks on Sheila’s frequency and concerns herself with the same central questions. Sheila and Margaux become fast friends and co-searchers. While Sheila is surrounded by other artists — including her lover, Israel — her relationship with Margaux, and its trial-and-error ebb and flow, drives the novel.
Or is it a novel? Sheila may be wandering, but Heti — an interviews editor at The Believer and author of two previous books of fiction — knows exactly what she’s doing. It’s no mistake that the main character shares the writer’s name and hometown, that the book itself is dedicated to a woman named Margaux, and that the novel takes place in five acts, with sections written as the dialogue of a play. The art in question, first and foremost, is the book itself — what it’s supposed to accomplish and how it’s supposed to intersect with, and inform, one’s day-to-day life.
In order to accommodate such whopping questions, Heti crafts Sheila’s voice as abrupt, wide-eyed, and alien. Sheila’s shifted perspective allows for inventive, beautiful moments — such as when she receives an e-mail from her own heart — and some of the most stunning passages in the book.
“How could the waves do it, through each and every moment, and so naturally, as if it was for the first time, as if it was for the last time, as if it was for the middle time, as if it would go on forever, and as if it would one day end,” Sheila reflects in the third act. “The sea moved forward and back with all these possibilities, and all of them were true.”
At times, though, the in-your-face sensibility of the narrator reads as gratuitous. Sheila’s relationship with Israel seems mostly physical, and when Heti writes about sex (which she does often) the language is graphic and jarring. And while so many sentences are delightfully surprising, Heti sometimes goes a step too far.
But such off-notes seem deliberate, one of several steps which Heti takes to complicate our notion of beauty and ugliness. This gesture is mirrored in the narrative when, midway through the book, Sheila breaches Margaux’s trust and their friendship is threatened. Sheila attempts to clean up her mess, but her best intentions are repeatedly misread.
We care about Sheila’s plight, but the souls in limbo here are, ultimately, our own. With so many references to the world outside of the fiction, this novel demands to know: Can art inform our lives, and tell us how to be?
Christopher Boucher, author of the novel “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive,’’ teaches at Boston College, and can be reached at email@example.com.