I was drawn into the hype over Sheila Heti’s 'How Should a Person Be?' primarily after James Wood published his review criticizing the book as “evasive,” “vaguely intelligent,” and of “a deliberate flippancy.” I’ll be the first to say James Wood is a...
1. I was drawn into the hype over Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? primarily after James Wood published his review criticizing the book as “evasive,” “vaguely intelligent,” and of “a deliberate flippancy.”
2. I’ll be the first to say James Wood is a bland fuckboy clinging to dead relics of A-to-B, but for once I could understand his angle. Something about the novel seemed to want you to believe it more than it believes itself. The Sheila character (based on Heti, assumedly, but certainly not the same as who she is beyond the page) seems constantly more interested in what people think of her and what she should be doing than doing anything at all. A search for the sake of searching. It seems to assume you will find pleasure in simply riding alongside, the same way quasi-reality shows like The Hills (a show Heti professes to admire) and Facebook create their story by simply doing anything.
3. Here’s the beginning of why I don’t like Wood’s review: “Heti intends her book to be a larger portrait of a generation that knows the right questions but struggles to find the right answers.”
4. Why does he assume we know the questions? What is he protecting by assuming that every book should be asking the same thing, which, given Wood’s tastes, is basically the obvious and mindlessly repeated unanswerable question that seems to run through all safe, traditional narrative fiction: what is it to be human? The repetition of this question is why less and less people read.
5. I do like that Heti's book, in that it is at once concerned with appearances while at the same time being outside of itself, takes on the texture of a monolith; you can look at the book and feel its poise. It is difficult to say what it contains whether you like the content of it or not, which is more interesting in this case than a lot of popular “literary” fiction, or at least more volatile. It has a Schrödinger's cat-like effect, that while not necessarily remaining memorable for what it seems to want, stands out on the shelf as wholly itself, if, again, an emblem championing the idea of thing over the thing itself.
6. In this way the book does not fail in the way other books that Wood has praised failed in a more egregious way, recently Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, a book essentially about a privileged young man who pretends to hate himself while actually worshipping himself during a poetry fellowship in Madrid.
7. Part of why I hated Lerner’s novel so much was because of how otherworldly and majestic his previous books were. Atocha Station seemed an aesthetic inculcation, a bowing down to try to reckon with a false, inwardly idea of self. A parade of ego and feigned jeering-fawning depression, which regardless of whether or not the author meant it as tongue-in-cheek comes off as Holden Caulfield for prideful academic bros.
8. Both Heti’s and Lerner’s book use seemingly abstruse forms (internet chats, mistranslations, a flat confessionalism, offhand language disguised as philosophy) to try to mask what is at their heart a story we’ve heard before. Both followed on the heels of books that had seemed significantly more ambitious, and yet received less attention. Both pose in new clothes while in the same exhausted what-is-human light.
9. “Realism is perpetually hungry,” Wood writes, and here I don’t think he could be more wrong. Realism seems wholly sated, lardy, and ready to be worshipped, spouting out its shitty kids and petting them on the head, as long as they don’t go spitting into the current father figure’s pudding. More like: Realism is perpetually horny and can’t get it up; it hangs around miming the same old acts of sex and drugs and love that somehow American entertainment has found itself concerned with in place of death, color, and the intangible. The beyond-human.
10. In general, James Wood writes about fiction as if it were a boat or a tree house instead of a medium of limitless potential, where words can deform, defy, and reinvigorate space.
11. Regardless, these books exist. In some ways they are evidence to me of a more prevalent feeling that people now enjoy the idea of a thing more than they like what a thing really is. We don’t know anything more than we did when we began, nor was any other kind of air created, nothing shaken or challenged or felt fear in or comfort in or otherwise invoked.
12. This is the world. The human is what happens. There’s much else we do not understand, so much more interesting than the ego of needing a definition of what we are.
13. Often I find I can’t help thinking of all art as pixels in an enormous face; some pixels are the pupils, some are the nostrils, some are the scalp, some are the black inside the open mouth. You can’t choose which you are, but you can aim.
14. Anything can always come next. Or rather, anything should be able to. The worst is when you already know what’s to come.
15. Most of the time when I watch a Lars von Trier movie I find myself wishing I was watching it on mute. The image has thousands of possible ramifications, and yet the one that was chosen, for the most part, feels nothing but confining and old.
16. Seeing The Master recently I kept waiting for it to slide off its tracks and let the image overrun me, but it mostly didn’t. The best scenes seemed the ones that somehow didn’t fit: the skin of the suddenly naked women in the room singing; the wake of water off the backside of the boat; Joaquin Phoenix’s posture and the way words come out of his mouth. Each of those things is more than the whole story; more than human.
17. Many of my favorite performances on film come from the feeling of the actor seeming wholly somewhere else: trapped in the film but not confined by it.
18. Crispin Glover in River’s Edge; David Bowie in Fire Walk with Me; the albino in Invocation of My Demon Brother; the actors staring at the camera in the back of the shots in Satyricon; Steve Martin in The Jerk; Klaus Kinski…
19. Over Wood I’ll even take Ted Bundy: “The fantasy that accompanies and generates the anticipation that precedes the crime is always more stimulating than the immediate aftermath of the crime itself.”
20. We already have enough Will Ferrells. Enough John Updikes, too. There’s only one of you, and all these words.
21. “It’s a far out balance,” wrote Charles Manson to his faux-stylistic-sycophant Marilyn Manson. “Beyond good and bad, right, wrong. What you don’t do is what I will do."
22. Gardner’s “narrative dream” requires the reader be asleep; in other words, inert.
23. I like art that seems to want to be destroyed; I like art that takes Chekhov’s gun off the wall and aims it at the reader; I like art that makes me have no idea what I should do now; I like art that changes how I think about a single object, or what could happen; I like art that makes other people angry and nothing else; I like neither the answer nor the question but the space between the two. I couldn’t give a shit who you have sex with or how.
24. So what. It doesn’t matter what I think. I’m writing it anyway. Everything continues to exist until it doesn’t. Then begins the awful reenactments.
25. Too much satisfaction with one’s self causes boring art, but a lack of confidence is even worse.
26. A lot of people seem more like Leonardo DiCaprio’s version of Howard Hughes than Howard Hughes. Perhaps that’s because you can’t make your way into the mess, and you can’t breathe color into a corpse.
27. The corpse has its own color. Putting makeup on a corpse is a joke. Maybe a potentially beautiful joke, but to whom?
28. Every person was a person without a definition until they died, then they became something remembered in a certain way, no longer created except in poses.
29. Anyone can Google anyone. Bodies are bodies.
30. Hypnotic suggestion now is really easy because we’re all kind of hypnotized. The words go into the heads. History gets made this way. Ideas are canonized. The fearful mimic and maintain. You are where you are.
31. You can’t tell a better story than the color green, but you can wield green.
32. Every instant there’s more world.
Previously - Dortothea Lasky's Wild-Ass Shout-Brain