02 April 2014

Fact or Fiction: Sheila Heti's, How Should a Person Be, Alexis Smith's, Glaciers and a Couple of Memoirs of Mental Illness






It has been a while since I have posted about more than one book that I've recently read, connected by a tenuous thread (see other examples HERE and HERE). Reading Sheila Heti's book sandwiched in between Agorafabulous and Hyperbole and a Half inspired me to do it again though. Sheila Heti's book has been both critically adored and much maligned, and I would say that my reaction to it was somewhere in the middle.  The book is about a young woman character, named Sheila, who is trying to get her life started after college, but seems stuck in a group of friends, in a scene, in her life, which like the play that she is writing, seems to be going nowhere. Heti's voice is the highlight of the book.  She is funny and quirky in a way that is a little less twee than some other millenial art-novelists.  The character Sheila's ramblings about how people should be, or what art means, sound just like the ramblings of a twenty-something artist who both doesn't know what she is talking about, but is as sure as she ever will be that she knows exactly what she is talking about.  And then there are moments that give the reader pause like this one:

For so long I had been looking hard intro every person I met, hoping I might discover in them all the thoughts and feelings I hoped life would give me, but hadn't. There are some people who say you have to find such things in yourself, that you cannot count on anyone to supply even the smallest crumb that your life lacks.
 Although I knew this might be true, it didn't prevent me from looking anyway. Who cares what people say? What people say has no effect on your heart.
Something about certain passages in the book struck me as so honestly what it feels like to be half grownup, living in the place of privilege and almost oppressive freedom that Sheila comes from.  She wants to reject conventional wisdom, but in its place has only feelings and longings.  And she has her friendship with Margaux, a fraught female relationship that unveils to the reader the depth of Sheila's selfishness.

I liked the book, if only because of what it had to say about the place from which art so often comes.  Sheila is trying to write a play in the book, but the uneventful nature of her life prevents her from making compelling art. And maybe that is how we come to art, like How Can a Person Be?, which is not compelling on the surface, but underneath really has something to say about itself and about the process of making art. So much art being made today comes from this place.

During and directly after the time that I was reading Heti, I was reading memoirs by two other young, female writers: Sara Benincasa's, Agorafabulous! Dispactches from My Bedroom and Allie Brosh's, Hyperbole and a Half.  Both of these books are, at least partially, about their authors' struggles with mental illness.  Benincasa has suffered from debilitating agoraphobia, the onset of which occurs fairly suddenly when the author is in college and finds herself unable to leave her apartment.  Allie Brosh experiences serious bouts of depression, which she writes/draws about poignantly and also hilariously.  In fact, despite the sometimes seriousness of much of their subject matter (although Brosh does have lots of sections in the book about her dogs, which are not so serious), both writers approach their stories with humor.  I laughed out loud at both books.  Both women take the raw material of their lives, and become storytellers, without the pretense of the meta narrative in Heti.  And although I have always been the reader that appreciates difficulty and books that demand analysis, reading these two women, whose experiences so resonated with some of my own, I cannot deny the pleasures of identification.  And even though I could also see myself in Sheila, there were so many moments where I wanted to strip away all the words in between us, and to get to the heart of the matter: the struggle against loneliness when all you think about is yourself, the struggle to make art with so little raw material, and the desire to know everything, but to not be able to hold it because evrything is just so big and your life is just so small.

And this brings me to Glaciers by Alexis Smith, a novella sized book about another young woman.  This one is called Isabel, and she lives in Portland, and she loves old things that once belonged to other people, and she wants to go to Amsterdam, but thinks she probably never will.  On the back of the book jacket, Karen Russell claims that the book is "filled with kaleidoscopic pleasures."  This description of the book is better than the book itself.  The atmosphere of the book was totally reminiscent, for me, of the movie Garden State (a movie I happen to still love).  It is not without its "kaleidoscopic pleasures."  Not far into the first chapter I realized that how I would get the most out of the book, is if I just let its language wash over me, the images like ocean waves.  Alexis Smith is a wordsmith, a poet, but the tiny book is without a beating heart.  What is meant to be the heart perhaps, is the relationship between the book's subject (Isabel) and young soldier with whom she works, who she has a crush on, and who is called to return to duty.  As he leaves, we get this passage:

She has questions. For example: Can soldiers check their e-mail? Do they still receive packages from old ladies with notes of encouragement and hand-knit scarves? If I sent him a pair of my panties could he trade them for booze and M&M's?

And it feels like something Sheila the character might have written.  And the older I get ,the more I need my books to have both head and heart.



Title:How Should a Person Be?
Author: Sheila Heti
Publisher:Henry Holt and Company
Date: 2012
 Genre:Literary Fiction

306 pages.
Where I got it: Bought it.




Title:Agorafabulous! Dispatches from my Bedroom
Author: Sara Benincasa
Publisher:William Morrow
Date: 2012 Genre:Memoir

252 pages.
Where I got it: Bought it.




Title:Hyperbole and a Half: unfortunate situations, flawed coping mechanisms, mayhem, and other things that happened.
Author: Allie Brosh
Publisher:Simon and Schuster
Date: 2013
Genre:Graphic Memoir

369 pages.
Where I got it: Bought it.




Title:Glaciers
Author: Alexis Smith
Publisher:Tin House
Date: 2012
Genre:Literary Fiction

174 pages.
Where I got it: Bought it.


*I am a Powell's partner, and the images above are affiliate links.  If you click them and purchase a book, I will receive a small percentage of the payment to help support my reading habits:)

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