Sheila Heti first came to critical attention with her 2012 novel, “How should a person beThe strange formulation of the title of this book – not who or what, but how should a person be – implied that personality is an aesthetic phenomenon, as much a matter of style as of ethics or ontology. What is the most honest way of presenting oneself? How should one stand and carry oneself? “How should a person be?” wooed ugliness of all kinds: there were intentionally awkward phrases, scenes of bad sex, even an ugly painting contest.Heti suggested that writing a novel and creating a self both involve finding the appropriate, tentative form of something that is inherently unstructured, even unseemly.
The first sentence of Heti’s new novel, “pure color», indicates that she is again interested in aesthetics, that we are going to rethink the coherence of chaos in order. But now we must consider not just the creation of a self, but the creation, period: “After God created the heavens and the earth, he stood back to contemplate creation, like a painter who away from the canvas. This is the moment we live in – the moment when God stands back.
What a change from “How should a person be?” It was the self, not the soul, that was at stake in this novel. In contrast, ‘soul’ is a drumbeat in ‘Pure Colour’, just like ‘God’, just like ‘creation’, just like ‘mystery’, just like ‘beauty’. “We love to do the same thing that God loves,” writes Heti. “To make life and to make art is to breathe spirit into form.” In this novel, artistic creation is no longer hot and tumultuous: “For art is not made for living bodies – it is made for the cold and eternal soul.”
“Pure Colour” does not only dwell in the cold empyrean. It has a narrative – that is, it has human characters, a human (or humanist) plot, a specific location in the story. (“Seasons had become postmodern,” Heti writes of the strange moment in the novel and ours. “We no longer knew where we were in the calendar based on time”). The main character, a woman named Mira, goes to the imaginary American Academy of American Critics (sounds cool!) then works in a lamp store; she suffers the death of her father and falls in love with another budding critic named Annie. There are clever jokes: “Immortality means googling yourself forever.There are young critics who pontificate—”An artist knows he’s an artist because of how he relates to his own sincerity”—and older critics who surpass them: “A great artist rests in the chair of his talent, and it’s like resting in the warm hand of God.
But Heti places all this human drama alongside the deep time of cosmogony and a world of idiosyncratic myths and wild transformations. When Mira’s father dies, for example, she feels “his spirit ejaculate within her, as if the entire universe were entering her.” (Even in “Pure Colour,” the messiness of sex isn’t entirely absent.) Shortly after, the souls of Mira and her father are “drawn into a leaf,” where they talk about conscience (“I don’t don’t say it’s complicated, I say it’s a mystery”) and the delights of existence (“the adventures of speed, flexion, vertigo, and the various philosophical and physical rules”) .
Ah yes, Heti also proposes a tripartite division of souls à la Kierkegaard via the Brothers Grimm: those who are born from a bird’s egg (they are “interested in beauty, order, harmony and sense “) ; those born from a fish’s egg (“concerned with fairness and justice”); and those born from a bear’s egg (they “claim a few people to love and protect, and feel unbothered by their choice”). Like I said, the plot and the world are more human than human, and it’s hard not to make it all proudly weird, even twee.
So why does it work, and does it work in a totally different way than Heti has done before? Heti’s books have been described as examples of autofiction: novels that seem to disdain the novelistic impulse itself. That’s not what these fictions actually do, of course. As the critic Christian Lorentzen wrote, works of autofiction use artifice; it’s just that “the artifice serves to create the feeling that there is no artifice”. Still, it’s thrilling to watch Heti turn her skeptical gaze back to her own earlier skepticism, viewing beauty not as an embarrassment but as something to be revered – “our very small, hesitant sense of the hidden, magnificent, divine” .
“Pure Colour” opens with God stepping back from his creation. To be a great artist, you have to be a great critic, and to be a great critic, you have to have the “desire to undo things.” Finding the right distance from everything in life is the most important thing,” Mira thinks at one point. It all depends on the distance, and Heti found the right amount in “Pure Colour”.
By Sheila Heti
FSG, 224 pages, $26
Anthony Domestico is chairman of the literature department at Purchase College, SUNY, book columnist for “Commonweal” and author of “Poetry and theology in the modernist era.”