Even better than the real thing

Sheila Heti's "How Should a Person Be?" and Cheryl Strayed's "Wild: a Journey from Lost to Found" reviewed.

Sheila Heti at her home in Toronto. Portrait by Reynard Li
Sheila Heti at her home in Toronto. Portrait by Reynard Li

How Should a Person Be?
Sheila Heti
Harvill Secker, 320pp, £16.99
Wild: a Journey from Lost to Found
Cheryl Strayed
Atlantic Books, 336pp, £12.99

How should a person be? This ancient and unsolvable question serves as a kind of animating principle of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir and Sheila Heti’s novel, both of which were wildly feted on their publication in the US.

Heti’s joyously self-conscious creation is about a girl named Sheila and her struggles to build, fabricate or steal a coherent identity. Sheila is a blocked playwright, part of a circle of artist-hipsters in Toronto. In this she resembles Heti herself, who has modelled her cast so lovingly on reality that it’s possible to google the actual versions of the fictional paintings made by the actual version of Sheila’s fictional best friend, Margaux.

Sheila takes drugs, attends clown school, works as a hairdresser, undergoes Jungian analysis via telephone, meets Keanu Reeves in a swimming pool at the Miami Art Fair and puzzles perpetually about how her personality should be constructed, what destiny means and how best to facilitate her innate brilliance (she’s devastated when Margaux retitles a painting of her lounging naked in a jacuzzi from The Genius to House for a Head).

To encourage her writing, she purchases a tape recorder and begins, Andy Warholstyle, to record all her conversations. In between bouts of transcribing, she enters into an affair with the sexy Israel, whose depressingly pornographic demands give rise to one of the most alarming author-to-reader apostrophes I’ve ever read (“I don’t know why all of you sit in libraries when you could be fucked by Israel,” it begins, mildly).

Much has been made in the US of Heti’s boundary games, of her elaborate finessing of fiction and reality. The novel is constructed from multiple materials, including snippets of emails and long sections of dialogue. In its self-referential intertextuality and its offbeat wit, it recalls Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, as well as Warhol’s bizarre novel a (1968), in which he taped and had badly transcribed 24 hours of amphetamine-fuelled conver - sation between various logorrheic Factory members.

As this suggests, How Should a Person Be? is a profoundly ironic production – or, perhaps more accurately, it is a production profoundly concerned with how to live authentically in a world saturated by irony.

The same questions that drive Heti – of maturity and independence, of how to deal with sex and drugs and the desire to create – resurface in Wild, Strayed’s account of hiking 1,100 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail in the wake of her mother’s death.

When it comes to working out the larger questions of existence, Strayed has form. Back in 2010, she took over the anonymous “Dear Sugar” column in the Rumpus, an American online literary magazine. Her advice was smart, tender and palpably drawn from experience. In February 2012, she revealed her identity. When Wild was published a few weeks later, it shot up the New York Times bestseller list, was selected for Oprah’s Book Club and optioned as a movie by Reese Witherspoon, with a script by Nick Hornby.

It’s easy to see why. Writing in her own voice, Strayed retains Sugar’s deep sweetness, her commitment to discovering the meaning in adversity. After her mother, Bobbi, died unexpectedly of lung cancer at the age of 45, Strayed’s marriage unravelled and her remaining family drifted apart. For a while, she tried to bury her grief with heroin and casual sex and then, one day, while queuing for a shovel, she spotted a book on the Pacific Crest Trail, a long-distance path that runs the length of the west coast of the US. “The thought of the photograph of a boulder-strewn lake surrounded by rocky crags and blue sky on the cover seemed to break me open,” she writes, “frank as a fist to the face.”

When she began her walk, Strayed could barely lift her pack, which she nicknamed “the Monster”. She’d never hiked before and hadn’t done a single day’s training. Over the next two months, she lost five toenails, encountered bears and rattlesnakes and almost died of thirst and hypothermia. Soon, however, she was walking 19 miles a day, striding up mountains and camping alone in snowy forests, where she slept accompanied by the yip of coyotes.

The phrase “solvitur ambulando” – it is solved by walking – has become a kind of touchstone of millennial letters, the guiding impulse behind a variety of cultural histories, psycho-geographies and travelogues. Unlike her more intellectually minded counterparts – W G Sebald, say, or Rebecca Solnit or Robert Macfarlane – Strayed isn’t concerned with cultural ghosts but rather with her own flesh and blood.

As she hikes from the Mojave Desert in California to the Bridge of the Gods in Oregon, she sifts memories of the past, processing footfall by footfall the losses she’s accumulated. “Perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of what I’d lost or what had been taken from me,” she writes, adding: “The wilderness had a clarity that included me.”

Her take is utterly sincere, a world away from Heti’s riddling games, and yet both are clearly on a quest for wholeness, for a way of living in the right relationship to the world, for processing and making sense of its darker as well as more pretty regions.

One intersection in particular stands out. While setting up camp in the woods, Strayed encounters two deer hunters, armed with bows and madly thirsty, one of whom later sneaks back to comment creepily on her body. Something of the eeriness of this scene, its primal fear, returns transfigured in one of Heti’s strangest episodes: a dreamlike sequence about a room in which hundreds of women are skinned alive before being dropped from a building, their falling bodies covered in flung paint. Though Strayed’s book is both touching and instructive, it’s Heti’s scene that will stay with me, indelible and terrifying, a distillation of the actual into the cockeyed realm of art.

Olivia Laing’s “To the River” is published by Canongate (£8.99)