Sex, friendship, and community in Sheila Heti’s Toronto
I’ve been thinking a lot about How Should A Person Be?, the novel by Toronto writer Sheila Heti, over the past year. After reading it, I immediately sent an email to my closest female friends, telling them to read the book, telling them that it reflected our lives and our times. They read the book, and it sparked a number of reactions: lots of frustration (including two variations on “I wanted to throw it across the room”), moments of total recognition, giggling conversations about “livi[ng] in an age of some really great blow-job artists.” This is a book that many of us feel both compelled and disgusted by. I’ve re-read the book twice now, in light of these critiques and conversations, and I still feel that it has something to say about what it means to live right now, and particularly what it’s like to be a younger woman today: someone who has no clear path cut out for her.
How Should a Person Be? is a self-referential portrait of a young artist, where the protagonist shares a name, occupation, and hometown with the authour. Following the dissolution of Sheila’s marriage, she finds herself asking various people – her best friend Margaux, her friends, her analyst, her hairdresser boss Uri – the titular question: How should a person be? The book is structured as a play, with acts and intermissions, but their style varies widely: transcripts of her conversations with these friends, meditations on giving the perfect blowjob, email records as well as more traditionally novelistic interior monologue. Throughout the book, a type of bildungsroman, Sheila pursues answers to her questions through the lives and ideas of others, who she looks to learn from and model herself after.
Art is a bad place to look for manifestos or complete answers to difficult questions (“How should a person be?”, for example), but as a dispatch from the contemporary, it is one place to look for a response to GUTS’ provocative first question: “What is the state of feminism(s) in Canada?” The book could be labelled both neo- and post-feminist: it is clearly the product of a world that has been drastically changed by the history and struggles of feminist movements over the last 50 years, but it certainly does not concern itself with the representative interests of women as such.
In the chapter entitled “Sheila can’t finish her play”, we learn that, Sheila, the narrator, is working on a play commissioned by a feminist theatre company.
My only question had been, ‘Does it have to be a feminist play?’
‘No,’ they, said, ‘but it has to be about women.’
Sheila’s reaction to the theatre company’s only request represents the tone of How Should a Person Be? quite well: the book is ‘feminist’ in the same way that many of our lives are – inflected with feminism and engaged with it, rather than espousing a clear political goal. Part of the question “How Should a Person Be?” certainly has to do with the difficulties of engaging in this social world where the mores have been thoroughly questioned, overhauled, but not yet completely thrown away. Many of the funniest and most compelling parts of the novel are the ones that are not feminist, or that play on the tensions between how many of us live our lives and the ideals that we’re striving for. These moments play on a constant struggle of mine: the distance between being a ‘good feminist’, a good leftist, a good person – adhering to my beliefs to the utmost – and what I actually do in my life. By fully airing her messy, idiosyncratic voice, Heti offers insights not always seen in contemporary feminist literature. The text itself is not feminist, it’s a piece of art. But like any other art work, we can examine certain scenes that crystallize parts of our culture that are otherwise hard to see altogether, and tease apart the ways in which the threads of feminism, identity, ambition, desire, friendship and community weave through our lives.
As in Lena Dunham’s contemporaneous show, Girls, to which the novel is often compared, the sex in How Should a Person Be? is both vividly realistic and cringe-inducing, especially from a feminist perspective. In both works, the otherwise independent, intelligent protagonists are humiliated, silenced and dominated by their seemingly pitiful sexual partners – and love it. After leaving her marriage, Sheila enters into a dominant/submissive sexual relationship with a painter named Israel, “a genius, but not a genius at painting. He was a genius at fucking.” The descriptions of their sex are graphic and forceful, but interspersed with her knowledge that this relationship is degrading to her and detrimental to her work. Yet there is no question about Sheila’s role in this dynamic: this is consensual sex, violent and degrading though it might be.
Reading through a feminist lens, we might ask, how are we supposed to feel about her enjoyment of it, about Sheila’s stream-of-consciousness monologue addressed (but, clearly, never spoken) to Isreal?
“… if you see something you don’t like, you can correct it later. You can take your hands and bruise my neck, keep pushing till you feel the soft flesh at the back of my throat, so the tears roll down my cheeks like they do every time you thrust your cock to the very back of my throat – like it never was with any other man. I never always had tears rolling down my face. Even when you hear me gagging you don’t stop. It’s your unconcern that makes me want you to do whatever you want with my body, which can be for you, while yours cannot be for me.”
Scenes like this represent the question of limits in a sex-positive world: is violence against women sanctioned if it’s within the realm of sex? What does it mean to be a sex-positive feminist today? Why are these tropes (of silencing, the humiliation of intelligent women) so prevalent in our culture? Heti has said repeatedly that many of the scenes and themes in the book were influenced by Internet porn, both by the objectification of women that takes place in it and by amateur porn writing, which she says is the most vital form of writing taking place these days.
There is an obvious and strong case to be made for women (re)claiming sexual power by using the traditional tropes of domination and submission in ways that gratify them. But have the trickle-down effects of third-wave feminist sex-positivity simply glossed over the ways in which these reclamations do not subvert, but echo the sexual history of female submission? For me, the crucial passage concerning these difficulties comes in a chapter titled “What is Empathy?” and deserves to be quoted at length, as it draws a vital comparison between the terrifying cycles of child abuse and the desire of many women to fulfill their scripted sexual roles:
I began to see that the worst thing about child abuse would be the empathy the child would have for the grown-up who feels compelled to do these things. Worse would be the tenderness you would feel toward the adult because you love them – because you believe they are being forced by something inside them to do these terrible things. You would want to help them – to make them feel better – and you would help them feel better by complying, and complying without judgment. To do otherwise would leave you guilty for making them feel so bad. But the next thing that would happen is you would confuse their desire with yours – but your desire would be to please, not for the act itself. Forever after, though, it would be really hard to untangle what you thought other people wanted from what you wanted. How would you know what you wanted, when at such a young age, desire had been all mixed up with empathy and guilt?”
How does this passage relate to the masochistic and submissive sex she has with Israel? In a society so embedded with messages of objectification for women, how do we untangle what we want from our desire to please others, specifically our male partners? Why does sexual submission feel rebellious, when it’s the most conventional and conforming act one can perform? Dominant/submissive sex is so coded within our society (along gender lines) that to take it up is not striking out against anything, but, instead, means being welcomed into a long tradition of domination for men and submission for women. And yet, in the novel, Sheila initially feels freed by her sexual encounters with Israel.