Saturday, 10 August 2013


Voices of a generation. They're like buses. You wait for ages and then several come along at once. I'm assuming here, of course, that you have ever done time on public transport. (If not, you'll just have to take my word for it.)

Last year was big for VOAGs. First and foremost there was the annoyingly multi-talented Girls' creator Lena Dunham (anyone who was mentored by the genius that was Nora Ephron - voice of her own generation and many more besides - is good enough for me). We'll call her Voice of a Generation 1. Then, no sooner had we finished paying tribute to Dunham and started blaming her for all the worlds ills, along came Sheila Heti. Her novel, How Should A Person Be? was published in the states last summer, to universal acclaim. Almost. Of which, more later.

The New York Times loved it, calling it "Funny...odd, original, and nearly unclassifiable." No lesser writer than Margaret Atwood backed it. And Dunham herself said it was "A really amazing meta-fiction meets non-fiction novel that's so funny and strange. It has lots of the same concerns as Girls does."

Cue countless other reviews comparing Heti to Dunham and How Should A Person Be? to Girls. And so, VOAG 2 was born.

And the New Yorker loved it too, except for the bit where the reviewer (revered in literary circles, James Wood) wanted to hurl it across the room. And there's the problem. I guarantee you, at some point you will want to hurl this book across the room, more than once. But that won't stop you wanting to keep reading.

And here's why. Annoying as Sheila Heti (a 36-year-old Toronto based playwright not writing a play, whose best friend is called Margaux) and her protagonist Sheila (a thirty something Toronto-based, playwright, whose best friend... You get the picture) might be, it's utterly compelling. Like reality TV. Like, in fact, The Hills, the American reality series Heti was addicted to when she started writing. And it's meant to be, because the book (I hesitate to call it a novel) is centred around their conversations. Which are fact and which fiction is hard to tell if. But, if, like most of Brits, you know virtually nothing about Heti and her friends it hardly matters, when she comes out with lines like this:

On strange men chatting you up on restaurants: "We tried not to smile, for smiling only encourages men to bore you and waste your time."

Or this.

On relationships: "I'm through with being the perfect girlfriend...if he's sore with me, let him dump my ass. That will just give me more time to be a genius."

Or this.

On the 21st century: "I look at all the people who are alive today and think...we live in an age of some really great blow job artists. Every era has it's art form. The nineteenth century, I know, was tops for the novel."

Or this.

On our preoccupation with self help books: "I know what they say: You - but better in every way!"

The heart of the book/novel/artwork/curio is Sheila's friendship with Margaux. Yes, there are endless books on female friendship - some good, some bad, some indifferent. But few are as willing to admit the flaws quite so graphically. (It's not, by the way, the only thing that's graphic...); that female friendship often borders on the obsessive. (If you have ever felt the burn of resentment when a friend or colleague appears carrying your treasured Celine bag, you will identify with the yellow dress episode. Trivial, maybe, but a pivotal moment in any friendship. And Heti's not afraid to call it out. As Margaux says, "Boundaries, Sheila. Barriers.")

True, this is not so much a novel as performance art. For every Ephron-esque pearl of wisdom there's a chunk of indigestible self-indulgence, but it's no less enjoyable for that.

How Should A Person Be? Is published by Harvill Secker in hardback, £16.99 

(This piece was first published on Bazaar on Books blog, 6th February 2013.)

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