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29 January 2024

Sheila Heti’s book of life

The Canadian novelist’s Alphabetical Diaries find a new way to capture the rhythms of human consciousness.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

Sheila Heti’s new book does not so much begin as announce itself. Its first sentence reads as a declaration of purpose, as if the book had simply spoken itself into existence.

“A book about how difficult it is to change, why we don’t want to, and what is going on in our brain. A book can be about more than one thing, like a kaleidoscope, it can have many things that coalesce into one thing, different strands of a story, the attempt to do several, many, more than one thing at a time, since a book is kept together by its binding. A book like a shopping mart, all the selections. A book that does only one thing, one thing at a time. A book that even the hardest of men would read. A book that is a game.”

Alphabetical Diaries is a book about how difficult it is to change, why we don’t want to, and what is going on in “our brain” – a telling phrase for a work that burrows so deeply into a single psyche that it transcends the personal, as if emerging from one collective, neurotic consciousness. Then again, this book is “about” nothing – like life, it is not “about”, but just is. In many ways, it is a gimmick, a game. But its playfulness is profound.

Between her early twenties and early thirties, Heti, now 47, produced 500,000 words in diary entries. In her mid-thirties, she put the sentences into a spreadsheet and alphabetised them, looking for themes or patterns over a decade of thought. She edited them down, a slow whittling process, shaving off one curling sentence at a time to find a new shape. Though perhaps this book is less a carving than a mosaic – Heti’s original prose smashed into fragments, each one a tile with its own individual beauty, reorganised in service of a greater picture that only becomes visible once you stand back.

The resulting book is exhilarating: both intimate and withholding, repetitive and generative, undeniably self-centred and yet moving beyond the self. Stripped of anecdote, plot, context, it strains at the boundaries of its form: without chronology, can it really be considered a diary at all? Sentences seem to follow on from one another, the reader’s mind finding narrative where there may be none. The repetition caused by alphabetisation – entire sections contain sentences beginning “All I want”, “I wish” or “Why” – gives the book its rhythm: a monologue that is meditative, propulsive and yearning, like a chant, a mantra or a prayer.

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Heti’s prose moves between the mundane (“Am low on money. Am making noodles. Am reading Emma.”) and the existential (“Can I be truthful? Can I believe that things will turn out well when he and I are reunited? Can I withstand the storm in him and myself, the fear that rises and says, do not stay!”); the self-loathing (“You are nothing but slime, aspiring slime. You are wasting your life, always ruminating on men”) and the triumphant (“I woke up with a smile on my face and I was still smiling at the train station. I woke up without children. I won”); the theoretical (“Don’t think about the structure in terms of morality, good or evil, what should or shouldn’t be. Don’t think in terms of great art or great artist; think in terms of the work. Don’t think of yourself as a woman while writing”) and the poetic (“Like a bird moving from flower to flower, you will just move to another flower. Like a good-looking girl. Like a little abortion of something. Like a little kid running after a train”).

Juxtapositions and interruptions appear as punchlines – ironic, jarring, self-deprecating. (“Then my mind freed itself of men and spun out this long, long movie that was incredibly abstract and brilliant, and it was my mind telling me what I would be capable of if I didn’t think about men all the time. Then no email from him at all.”) Sentences call out to other sentences across the book. Portraits are dashed out over a page (“Grandma died. Grandma has been sick. Grandma is ailing still.”) Men merge into one vaguely dominating male energy (“He is such a fine-looking man, so incredibly sexy. He is such a strong, intoxicating man. He is thirty-eight.”) Preoccupations recur, epiphanies are discarded. The mind of the book moves through agony and pleasure and exhaustion in a few sentences. Disparate threads are woven into a tapestry that is urgent and moving, vivid and alive.

When she was a girl, Sheila Heti had a diary that told her what to write. Growing up in Toronto in the 1980s, she acquired a fill-in-the-blanks journal aimed at girls, with prompts such as “The dumbest goof I ever made was —”. As a young woman, Heti kept a diary on her computer, writing when she “needed” to. But she didn’t see it as “real” writing. It was only later in her thirties – when her breakthrough book How Should a Person Be?, a “novel from life” partly crafted from transcribed conversations with friends, was published in the early 2010s – that she began to see the entries as material.

Editing and organising are central to Heti’s process, as the Diaries note (“This desire to categorise… This desire to order and organise, to make an architecture”). For her 2018 book Motherhood – an enquiry into art, love and whether or not to have children – it was not writing but organising her material that formed “the real bulk of the work”. Alphabetical Diaries has existed in many forms over more than a decade: Heti first posted sentences on Twitter, and has published excerpts in n+1 magazine and, more recently, the New York Times. It was a task she returned to as she worked on other books – her boyfriend began referring to it as her “procrastination project”. Though some sentences remain constant across iterations, all previous versions are significantly different to the book now published by Fitzcarraldo. Even my advance proof differs to the finished copy: text was apparently still being edited on the day it was sent to the printers – an apt trajectory for a book about the consistencies and inconsistencies of the self.

What does the alphabet do? In one sense it’s a tool of randomisation, the letters themselves having no intrinsic meaning. But as an organising principle, the alphabet has an inarguable simplicity: it’s the first sequence many of us learn, making it seem instinctive or fated. In Motherhood, Heti incorporated tarot readings, dreams and the flipping of coins as a mystic, instructive voice set against her narrator’s anxieties. Here, the structure of the book assumes authority over the chaos of the narrator’s fears and fixations. It has a distancing effect, so that each distressing or idle thought becomes no less significant, but part of a natural cycle, taking their rightful place in the order of things.

“All you want to do is go home, curl up, and die. Almost collapsed writing that story. Alone in a room. Alone. Alone. Alone. Alone. Already I am feeling happier. Already I feel a spring of happiness inside me. Although what if living honestly doesn’t get you where you want to go? Always feeling this tremble of insecurity and fear. Always having to smile and reassure everybody. Always I don’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings, so I act as pleasant as possible, meanwhile I am exhausted and getting a headache. Always the other is a source of strife in psychoanalysis. Always to be identifying the disease within ourselves.”

Here is so much of being alive: the pain of it, the loneliness, the despair, the brief interlude of joy, the compulsion towards comparison, the relentless search for self-improvement, the quest for meaning. By being divided up and brought together again, the sentences are somehow able to hold more.

The alphabetical structure also draws attention to the form of the sentence. Heti’s are great – smooth, polished, clean, solid, light, each like the perfect stone for skimming across a lake. They generate movement, they skip ahead – but they are a pleasure to hold and examine in the palm of one’s hand too. (“A husband is good insurance against the crazy, against the many things of the world.”) They are mostly short, averaging about 15 words. When a longer sentence intervenes in the churn of life it arrives with the force of revelation.

So too do the entries that seem to speak in the voice of the book itself. “Let the novelists write the novels,” this voice says. “Let this be the impulse under which you write it: sentence follows sentence, truth follows truth. Let time do its job.” It’s a voice that Heti becomes a kind of conduit for: “It will be a book for the future… It will not be fiction, and it will not tell a story, and there will be no characters, and you will not worry about the voice or the way it is written, just about what you are saying.”

Alphabetical Diaries is not fiction, it does not tell a story. But it has its own arc – from the declarative A’s through the chastising D’s (with their Dos and Do nots), the soaring ego that emerges in the I’s and the bitter self-questioning of the W’s. There are climaxes, realisations that edge towards enlightenment. There are moments of sudden, poignant beauty, of calmness and neatness, when the world is right. “It was a beautifully sunny day. It was a brilliant morning, I could have read all day. It was a nice, warm night. It was a small beach, the size of a backyard. It was as if all the apples, all the stories, gave way to the season where there was only one apple.” And there are moments of hope, that reach out beyond the pain of the present, to a higher calling. “I came to my computer and started working on my book, understanding it more and more. I can continue going in this direction. I can do it. I can do this, too. I can do whatever I want. I can ease off the pressure… I can hold a much more complex picture in my head. I can look at my bookshelves. I can look over that high wall.”  

Alphabetical Diaries
Sheila Heti
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 168pp, £10.99

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[See also: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s thought experiment]

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This article appears in the 31 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Rotten State