Canadian author Sheila Heti launched her career two decades ago writing postmodern fairy tales for adults. His first collection, The middle storiescontained stories such as a plumber wooing a princess, a girl who keeps a mermaid in a jar, and a small dumpling that falls on the floor.
Fables traditionally deliver moral lessons, but Heti has subverted genre expectations by serving up disappointment rather than resolution: the plumber doesn’t have the princess, the mermaid continues to be abused, and the little dumpling dries up and dies. .
Billed as a “philosopher of modern experience”, Heti is best known for her self-fiction novels How should a person be? (2010) and Maternity (2018). She enjoys experimenting with form: her body of work also includes a play, a historical short story, two children’s picture books, a collection of a friend’s pop philosophy lectures, a collaborative book on women’s fashion and a podcast by free form. In a near-Oulipian project, now serialized in The New York Times, she typed a decade’s sentences from her diaries into Excel, alphabetized the lines, and edited them to highlight recurring concerns. .
In his new novel pure color, Heti continues to ask existential questions but returns to fable form, albeit with a surreal twist. Appreciating his first draft of creation “like a painter standing back from the canvas”, God finds it deficient. The world in this novel largely resembles ours, before the Internet; the “earth warms before its destruction by God”, who hopes that his second project will go more smoothly. But here, people are born with one of three personality types: bird, fish, or bear. Birds are types of narcissistic performers; the fish are concerned with the collective; bears are fiercely protective of their loved ones.
The book is loosely laid out, with long philosophical digressions. But Heti never showed much interest in conventional literary devices. “It seems so tedious to invent a fake person and have them live a fake story,” she told art critic David Hickey in 2007. How should a person be? followed an aspiring artist and playwright pondering the titular question, using fragments of real emails and a transcribed conversation in an attempt at verisimilitude. In MaternityHeti’s fictional proxy struggled with the dilemma of whether or not to have a child, resorting to divination techniques including tarot cards and a draw on the I Ching.
If these two novels documented the preoccupations of Heti’s twenty and thirty years, pure color sets out to address the next stage of his life, as well as addressing topics such as climate change and art as creation.
Mira, the heroine, is a bird. She falls in love with Annie, a fish who is a classmate in their art criticism school. “Something opened in Mira’s chest, a portal to Annie and her chest opened, expanding in Mira’s direction.” When Mira’s father, a bear, dies, her mind merges with hers; later, their two consciousnesses join in a sheet and converse at length. (While the animal types are symbolic, the leaf metamorphosis is presented literally.) Annie eventually recognizes Mira and pulls her out of the leaf, but ultimately their different natures make the two incompatible.
Heti’s narrative voice employs a simple syntax. At best, the result is beautiful: the repetitions and resonances of his alphabetical diary have a poetic effect. His prose, however, can be clunky – “what one might charitably call basic,” as critic James Wood put it. She also has a penchant for provocation. In pure color, which draws its style from children’s books and the Old Testament, blasphemy pots. Explaining the feeling in Mira’s chest as she falls in love with Annie, Heti writes that “it was like a vagina stretching for a very big cock, but it was in her chest where that stretching happened. “. When her father died, Mira felt “her spirit ejaculate within her, as if the entire universe was entering her body”.
Vanity aside, the deliberately primitive side of the book borders dangerously on kitsch: “Don’t believe that in death one moves away from the earth; you stay here with everything – the part of you that loved, which is the most important part. Naivety may be better suited to exploring the issues of the quarter rather than the midlife crisis. “In the middle of life, the gods undress us,” warns the narrator. They “strip us of our parents, our ambitions, our friendships, our beauty – different things in different people”.
Heti is, alas, not the Virgil to guide us out of the dark wood. While pure color is less overtly self-fictional than her predecessors, we know from a 2020 essay published in The Yale Review that she was mourning the death of her father at the time of writing. Although I recently lost my own father, the book’s meditations on grief left me cold. The last lines suggest a framing device: the birds, fish and bears were a bedtime story that the narrator’s father told her as a child. If only our adult anxieties were as easily assuaged as in fairy tales.
pure color by Sheila Heti, Harvill Secker £16.99, 224 pages
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