By Sheila Heti
216 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $26.
Sheila Heti’s new novel “Pure Colour” is about a young woman who turns into a leaf. “Unrequited love is a bore,” sang Billie Holiday. So it turns out it’s photosynthesis.
The name of the young woman is Mira. Her transformation is disorienting, for us if not her. For a moment, the reader is consuming hit after hit of Heti’s strong and familiar brand of espresso. The next day, we sip like Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined cup of tea at MoMA.
“Pure Colour” has a complex philosophical superstructure. Mira, who at the start of the novel works in a lamp store and attends a prestigious school for art criticism – the first sign that this book is a fable – is clearly living in the end times.
The heat is painful. (“Seasons had become postmodern.”) The internet broke courtesy. (“There was so much more hate than any of us had the ability to comprehend.”) It all feels dirty, sad and fake. Colors are washed out of things.
Two relationships support Mira. One is with Annie, who lives above a bookstore. They just met, but Mira is so drawn to her that she feels like “her ribcage was being torn apart”. Heti has long been a devastating writer on sexual magnetism, her prose as sensitive as the tip of a conductor’s baton.
The other relationship is with his father. When he dies, she is deprived. Her spirit passes through her. She joins him in the sheet where they are, to use Milton’s expression, lost in each other’s arms. This relationship is vaguely, the author implies, also sexual.
All of this takes place in Civilization’s first draft. In preparation for the second draft, “in the hope of doing things better this time”, writes Heti, “God appears, splits and manifests as three critics in heaven”.
The three critics in the sky are unfortunately not Peter Schjeldahl, Deborah Solomon and Jerry Saltz. Instead, there is “a great bird that criticizes from above, a big fish that criticizes from the middle, and a big bear that criticizes while cradling creation in its arms”.
Where is Heti going with this? It is complicated. “Pure Colour” takes its readers to the border between substance and hallucination. You feel it doing several things at once.
First, she makes room to talk about ideas that interest her — the mystery of consciousness, the ego versus the true self, ideas of the divine, the nature of criticism, the kibbitz mind versus what which Emerson called “the wise silence”.
Second, it cleverly confuses expectations. Heti’s recent novels, “Motherhood” and “How Should a Person Be?”, were placed in a box labeled, sadly, autofiction. “Pure Colour” breaks that box. He’s a writer who—for now, anyway—wants to be less understood rather than more understood.
Does the novel work? Not entirely, not for this reader. “Pure Colour” is sometimes terribly serious. It is also static; very little, beyond the big Gregor Samsa-style reveal, happens.
Heti’s detractors could probably put a bottle in the middle of a table and have fun reading lines out of context in suave poetic voices. Here come the hot jets: “Mira wonders if leaves exist in the human heart”; “What is the real distance of love? » ; “In a sheet, there is no question of treason.”
And yet, she has a knack for turning metaphysics to her advantage. There are moments in this novel that might remind you of the scene in “The Real Thing,” Tom Stoppard’s play, when a character shakes a souvenir snow globe and a snowstorm fills the entire scene. Just like that, there is magic.
Like Iris Murdoch’s novels, Heti’s are philosophically intense, though Heti’s work is pared down where Murdoch’s was Rabelaisian. Heti has a sharp axe. In “Pure Colour”, the falling wood chips are as interesting as the sculpture that is made.
Heti is interested in charisma and beauty, in their utter injustice. “A person can ruin their whole life, without even wanting to, all because another person has a very beautiful face,” she writes. “Did God think of that when he created the world?
It can compact political and class antagonisms into small fists of meaning. Thus this sentence, which begins softly before delivering its spiciness: “At least God had given the sunrise – to those of us who lived on a cliff.”
As in recent work by Patricia Lockwood, Lauren Oyler, and Jia Tolentino, among others, there are many bliss of perceived past lives online.
“Pure Colour” is not powerless, organically, oddly funny, as some of Heti’s early novels were. But there are times. There’s a fed up feeling that the world has simply become, for lack of a better word, rude.
Global warming sounds like “a bad older brother sitting on your face”. Dust in the air? “We spend our days in the dust of the dead. Two minutes out of the shower and we’re already dirty. It’s too disgusting to discuss.
Novelist Peter De Vries, when asked about his literary ambition, once replied that he wanted a mass readership, large enough to be looked down upon by his elite audience.
In recent years, Heti has approached this kind of wide audience. We can’t blame him for wishing, with a novel like “Pure Colour”, to be more elusive.