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9 February 2022

Sheila Heti’s dream-world

Pure Colour, Heti’s risk-taking, reality-bending new novel about a father and daughter, is a thing of frustration and wonder.

By Johanna Thomas-Corr

“There’s so much stupidity that goes into being a good novelist,” said the Canadian writer Sheila Heti in conversation with Patricia Lockwood last year. “There are certain things that you don’t see and can’t see, and this lack of seeing leads to literary invention.”

If you have read any of Heti’s writing, you might recognise the sentiment. In her formally inventive, often very funny autobiographical fiction, the 45-year-old novelist, essayist and playwright confronts philosophical questions about how to live, love and create art with a kind of unfiltered, questing sincerity that can sound a little naive, a little… yoga instructor. “The self is ever stirred like the leaves in the trees. The leaves quiver and quake, just like we do,” she writes in her new novel, Pure Colour. Elsewhere in the same book, she wonders how God could have put the whole universe into motion considering he doesn’t have a physical being – and writes of a need for a Thermos, to “keep memories warm”.

In Heti’s semi-fictional Bildungsroman, How Should a Person Be? (published in Canada in 2010 and the UK three years later), one character tells the narrator, Sheila: “It’s good for an artist to be ridiculous… [to have the] freedom to take risks, the freedom to do something bad or to appear foolish.” Sally Rooney claims it was How Should a Person Be? that made her want to be a novelist: “It felt like it had stripped away everything boring about a novel and just lets in the stuff that was actually good”. Rachel Cusk’s autofiction owes a clear debt to Heti too. Cusk praised Heti’s last novel, Motherhood (2018), about a female writer in her late 30s reaching the decision not to have children, for breaking new ground, “both in her maturity as an artist and in the possibilities of the female discourse itself”.

“Maturity” may feel like an odd word to use given Heti’s almost childlike style. However, her maturity as an artist is – paradoxically – the freedom to write in a way that defies conventional critical judgement. This manifests in all kinds of ways, from approximate descriptions – a character reaching for a “thing of jam” in How Should a Person Be? – to the simplistic, often bratty ideas in Motherhood about the supposedly conservative nature of being a mother.

[See also: The liberal platitudes of Michael Ignatieff]

“You have to be smart in the right ways but you also have to be dumb in the right ways,” Heti told Lockwood – another writer who sees the creative opportunities in playing the holy fool. Heti was surely thinking of Flannery O’Connor here, one of her favourite authors, who argued that there was a “certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once”. The longer you looked at one object, “the more of the world you see in it”; O’Connor felt that all serious writers wrote “about the whole world”.

Pure Colour might just be Heti’s dumbest novel yet – and I don’t mean that entirely as disparagement. It’s Heti at her “stumblingest” (one of her excellent coinages) and also her most risk-taking. Though it is clearly inspired by the death of her own father several years ago, it is her first book for a while to be told in the third person. It begins as a campus novel and expands into a sort of creation myth. Heti wants to capture not just the whole world but the whole universe, from the mysteries of dark matter to the torment of walking with a wet sock, and various shades of human heartache in between.

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The premise is that God has made three types of people: birds, fish and bears. Birds are self-involved, ambitious artists interested in beauty, order and meaning. Fish are socially-minded creatures concerned with fairness and justice. Bears are un-pragmatic protectors of their loved ones. Mira, the novel’s human heroine, is a bird daughter of a bear father, whose intense love can feel too much. She finds herself falling for Annie, a fellow student at the amusingly-named American Academy for American Critics. Annie is a fish.

The first section of the book is taken up with a rose-tinted account of their student days. We also get Mira’s memories, conveyed in several delicate tableaux, of working in an expensive lamp store, where she is drawn to the cheapest item, made of polished stones of coloured glass. “There is no point in loving something that is not a bit within reach,” she realises.

We skip forward to the death of Mira’s father, which she experiences as a moment of euphoria, his spirit merging with hers. More precisely, she feels it “ejaculate into her, like it was the entire universe coming into her body”. She really goes for it with this image (“the way cum feels spreading inside, that warm and tangy feeling”) and it isn’t even the strangest metamorphosis in the novel. Later, his consciousness and hers end up cohabiting in a leaf – yes, a leaf (Heti has a thing for trees). Here, they converse about art, love, family values, the Bronze Age and mice in unbroken paragraphs that don’t differentiate between their voices (“Well, you worry about an asteroid hitting the earth in the next million years. Who does? You do. No I don’t”). The novel becomes a meditation on creation, death and reincarnation as it steadily removes the guardrails of traditional fiction, leaving the reader in a kind of dreamlike no-man’s-land.

Pure Colour is billed by Heti’s publisher as a “contemporary bible” written by a “philosopher of modern experience”. But it reads most like a bedtime conversation between a father (or his spirit) and a daughter in which he is making up a story as he goes along. There are strong ties with Heti’s first book, The Middle Stories (2001), 30 fables inspired by the stories her own father told her every night before bed. As in Motherhood, Heti is concerned with what it’s like to be a daughter as an adult. That book became a way of honouring both her mother and grandmother, of saving the dead from oblivion through art: “I want to make a child that will not die,” she writes. In Pure Colour, the preoccupation is still more pronounced: “Art would never leave us like a father dying.”

The title is both a reference to Mira’s father promising one day to buy her “colour itself” and also her memories of the particular colour of his room when he died. The story, if you can call it that, works on the basis that God is an artist who has created a canvas that is “shoddily made, rushed, exuberant, malformed”. This is our world, a “first draft of existence”, which is about to be scrapped. The ice caps are melting, species are dying and humans are consumed with anger. We are living at the end of human civilisation, “squatting here like teenagers in a house with painted cocks”.

[See also: Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob: an epic that sinks under the weight of facts]

The best parts of Pure Colour read like Samuel Beckett has reimagined parts of the Old Testament: “Faeces, worms, piss, trouble. This is where we are now. Our dressing up has led us nowhere; our manners have led us nowhere.” Its worst moments read like a student relaying a psilocybin expedition. But unevenness is a given with Heti and there is so much conviction to her prose that I never felt my attention flagging. There’s also a knowing wit running beneath the novel’s woo-woo aspects, the same vein of humour that saved Motherhood from its moments of self-absorption.

What makes Heti’s novels so compelling is never the story, nor even the characters, but the questions her characters need answering at moments of flux in their lives. Should I have a baby? What happens when a parent dies? How should a person be? None of the books provide answers but Heti does manage to push her way from one side of a problem to another. Reason is for philosophy, not fiction, Heti has argued. Her characters’ questions can only be answered, “through the annoying, circular thinking that happens alongside living; thinking that is more emotional and symbolic than rational”. Hence her fondness for tarot, palm reading and I Ching coin tossing – and her willingness to stumble and look ridiculous.

The mysticism is part of the formal innovation in Heti’s novels. Both the I Ching in Motherhood and the chatty leaf in Pure Colour provide a kind of supernatural conversational channel that destabilises a more conventional literary mode. They make Heti’s fiction more dialogue-driven, much as Sheila’s purchase of a digital tape recorder does in How Should a Person Be? The protagonists of all three novels engage with disembodied voices at a time of crisis, a process that releases each novel from its conventional form.

The central problem in Pure Colour becomes one of distance. Mira struggles to understand “what distance [is] best” with her father, who seemed to want her to be his wife. Then there’s the question of whether Mira and Annie can ever achieve closeness or whether distance somehow makes their connection “more beautiful”. “To find the right distance from everything in life is the most important thing,” Heti reflects. “To stand at the right distance, like God standing back from the canvas.”

I could dwell on the novel’s flaws: the relationship with Annie is airy and underdeveloped. There’s an incoherent rant about family traditions being abandoned that sounds like a stoner becoming paranoid. There are the weird passages about Mira’s father’s spirit ejaculating into her, and also many sentimental musings about the wisdom of the universe. But for all its frustrations, Pure Colour still left me full of admiration and wonder. It might be muddled, it might be naive, but, as she writes: “There is something exciting about a first draft – anarchic, scrappy, full of life, flawed.”

Pure Colour
Sheila Heti
Harvill Secker, 224pp, £16.99

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This article appears in the 09 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak's Game