Sheila Heti first came to real critical attention with her 2012 novel, “How Should a Person Be?” The strange phrasing of that book’s title — not who or what but how should a person be — implied that personhood is an aesthetic phenomenon, as much a matter of style as ethics or ontology. What is the self’s most honest mode of presentation? How should it hold and carry itself? “How Should a Person Be?” courted ugliness of various kinds: There were intentionally clunky sentences, some bad sex scenes, even an Ugly Painting Competition. Heti suggested that writing a novel and crafting a self both involve finding the proper, provisional form for something that is inherently unstructured, even unseemly.
The first sentence of Heti’s new novel, “Pure Colour,” indicates that she’s again interested in aesthetics, that we’re again going to be thinking about the cohering of chaos into order. But now we’re to consider not just the creation of a self but creation, period: “After God created the heavens and the earth, he stood back to contemplate creation, like a painter standing back from the canvas. This is the moment we are living in — the moment of God standing back.”
What a shift from “How Should a Person Be?,” which declared in its opening pages that “to go on and on about your soul is to miss the point of life.” It was the self, not the soul, that was at stake in that novel. By contrast, “the soul” is a drumbeat in “Pure Colour,” as is “God,” as is “creation,” as is “mystery,” as is, most striking of all, “beauty.” “We like doing the same thing God likes,” Heti writes. “Both making life and making art are pouring spirit into form.” In this novel, art-making is no longer hot and riotous: “For art is not made for living bodies — it is made for the cold, eternal soul.”
“Pure Colour” doesn’t solely dwell in the chilly empyrean. It has a narrative — which is to say, it has human characters, a human (or humanish) plot, a specific location in history. (“Seasons had become postmodern,” Heti writes of the novel’s, and our own, strange moment. “We no longer knew where in the calendar we were by the weather”). The main character, a woman named Mira, goes to the imaginary American Academy of American Critics (sounds cool!) and then works in a lamp store; she suffers the death of her father and falls in love with a fellow would-be critic named Annie. There are clever quips: “Immortality means googling yourself forever.” There are young critics pontificating — “An artist knows himself to be an artist because of how he relates to his own sincerity” — and older critics out-pontificating them: “A great artist rests back in the easy chair of his talent, and it’s like resting back in the warm hand of God.”
But Heti places all of this human drama alongside the deep time of cosmogony and a world of idiosyncratic myths and wild transformations. When Mira’s father dies, for instance, she feels “his spirit ejaculate into her, like it was the entire universe coming into her.” (Even in “Pure Colour,” the mess of sex isn’t entirely absent.) Soon thereafter, the souls of both Mira and her father are “drawn up into a leaf,” where they talk about consciousness (“I’m not saying it’s complicated, I’m saying it’s a mystery”) and the delights of existence (“the adventures of speed, bending, dizziness, and the different philosophical and physical rules”).
Oh yes, Heti also offers a Kierkegaard-by-way-of-Brothers-Grimm tripartite division of souls: those born from a bird egg (they are “interested in beauty, order, harmony and meaning”); those born from a fish egg (“concerned with fairness and justice”); and those born from a bear egg (they “claim a few people to love and protect, and feel untroubled by their choice”). Like I said, the plot and world are humanish rather than human, and it’s hard not to make all this sound proudly strange, even twee.
So why does it work, and work in a way entirely different from what Heti has done before? Heti’s books have been described as examples of autofiction: novels that seem to disdain the novelizing impulse itself. That’s not what such fictions actually do, of course. As the critic Christian Lorentzen has written, works of autofiction use artifice; it’s just that “the artifice is in service of creating the sensation that there’s no artifice.” Still, it’s thrilling to see Heti turn her skeptical eye on her own previous skepticism, considering beauty not as a source of embarrassment but as something to be venerated — “our very small and tentative sense of the hidden, magnificent, divine.”
“Pure Colour” opens with God taking a step back from his creation. To be a great artist, one must be a great critic, and to be a great critic one must possess the “desire to undo things.” To find the right distance from everything in life is the most important thing,” Mira thinks at one point. So much depends upon distance, and Heti has found the right amount in “Pure Colour.”
By Sheila Heti
FSG, 224 pages, $26
Anthony Domestico is chair of the literature department at Purchase College, SUNY, the books columnist for “Commonweal,” and the author of “Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.”