Disclaimer: There are many explicit sections in How Should a Person Be? I will be quoting some of these penis passages. Prepare yourself. Maybe put down any food/drink if you don’t want to be sickened…
All right, folks. If you follow me on Twitter or go to Books and Bars, you are aware that I am not a fan of Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?
At this month’s book club discussion, it felt much like those of us who didn’t like the book had our opinions shut down and glossed over by those who loved it. In a way, some of the discussion reminded me of all the things I hated about literature discussions in college (despite being a literature major).
Since the haters didn’t fully get to hate (except on Twitter), here goes me, ripping into the book.
First, I would like to say, I’m 23. I’m still figuring life out and all that jazz, which should make me an ideal audience for this book about a twentysomething figuring out how a person should be.
However, I hatehatehated How a Person Should Be. And much of this hate has to do with the dynamics of Sheila’s relationships with Israel and Margeaux.
To an extent, I can understand the explanation that the Sheila/Israel relationship is an example of real life. People, myself include, at one time or another engage a relationship that is bad for them. But: to how much of an extent is the Sheila/Israel relationship a self-perpetuating example of real life? Its existence is far more detrimental than it is experiential.
The character of Israel is particularly horrifying. For instance, the things he says and does: “I’ll decide if you’re celibate or not” (78). As consenting as Sheila actually was in the situation, that line impunes their relationship with rape.
But, most horrifying of course is the scene that stretches from p. 120 to 123. Take my very rage-driven reaction:
And, since it’s hard to see through my mad scribbles, here are some particularly disgusting highlights (along with my responses) that manage to make sex extremely unappealing:
“You can take your hands and bruise my neck, keep pushing till you feel the soft flesh at the back of my throat, so the tears roll down my cheeks like they do every time you thrust your cock to the very back of my throat–like it never was with any other man.” (120)
Quote (paraphrased) from book club: “I never thought I’d read a description of a blow job that would sound so unappealing.”
“Why are you all reading? I don’t understand this reading business when there is so much fucking to be done.” (121)
Reading is also a pleasure, and isn’t it nice to have a variety of pleasures in life?
“…when there is only one thing in the world to be paying attention to right now, which is that you are not getting your brains fucked out of your skull by Israel and don’t you think that’s a problem, you stupid, brain-dead slut.” (122)
But… if I’m “not getting [my] brains fucked out of [my] skull,” wouldn’t that mean that I’m not “brain-dead”?
“Or is it impossible to have any dignity unless you are getting nightly reamed by Israel?” (122)
I fail to understand how “getting nightly reamed by Israel” actually gives you dignity…
“Enjoy what you can of life without the magnificent cock of Israel.” (123)
Why, thank you, Sheila Heti; I will.
The worst part, however, is the way in which the character of Sheila navigates her way away from Israel. I could be cool with the whole terrible relationship plot line if it had a more satisfying ending. Say, as one Books & Bars club member suggested, Israel getting kicked in the balls.
Unfortunately, her out was putting her nose in his ass. Because… that’s perhaps one of the most disgusting things I can think of? Because… Heti wanted to leave the readers as unsatisfied as Sheila? I can’t come up with a good reason for it.
And this is why I hated How Should a Person Be? There are a few passages that I do think are insightful and solid writing, but that is a blog for another time. A few good lines can’t make up for what was an awful book to get through.
Heti, Sheila. How Should a Person Be? 2010. New York, NY: Picador, 2013.