This sense of freedom and ecstasy does not last, of course. In order to finally complete her play for the feminist theatre company, Sheila realizes that she must cut all ties with Israel, which means ending their sexual relationship. Yet it is not as easy as it seems: “there was no way of escaping a man like that,” not simply because of his pursuit of her, but her desire for him distracts and overwhelms her. The solution, for Sheila, is to humiliate herself in his eyes, to become as unattractive as possible, “to strip every last filament of gold from [her] skin.” This act, she says, “felt like the first choice I had ever made not in the hopes of being admired”, and it is this choice that allows her to write the pieces that become the text of the book itself. The freedom to be ugly, not to be admired or desired, are hard won in a society that tells young women in particular that our value depends on attractiveness, likability, the extent to which we produce desire. Is this freedom, then, to be able to be ugly and unlikable? While it affords her the possibility of stepping outside the reach of Isreal’s power, there is no sense in which she has reached a final conclusion – that she has overcome the immense desire to please and be agreeable to men. It is only in the company of her best friend that Sheila begins to feel that she can do the work that she most needs to do.
At the heart of How Should A Person Be? is the relationship between Sheila and Margaux, and the reality of this friendship is what gives the book life. Heti deals with female friendship in a way I’ve rarely seen represented elsewhere: she takes it outside of the common paradigms of either sisterhood or cattiness. This is not in any way a male-mediated or dominated relationship, nor is it a celebration of femaleness or femininity. In the beginning of their friendship, neither Sheila or Margaux has a history of close friendship with other women, always having been the sole girl in a boy’s club: “Two women was an alchemy I didn’t understand.” They are cautious with one another at the beginning, but after a series of encounters, they become close very quickly, and soon enough are meeting and talking daily and working as artistic collaborators.
If in some romantic relationships, the tendency is for a woman to disappear into a prescribed role – to become a girlfriend, wife, or mother – the power of friendship is to expand the self as it relates to others. How Should a Person Be? presents possibilities of becoming more present in intense female friendships: as opposed to disappearing into a role, as happens repeatedly in her relationships with men, there is no prescribed way for her to be with Margaux. Female friendships have a number of scripts, but none of them are sufficient to describe the process of self-definition and discovery that threads through Sheila and Margaux’s relationship. Margaux is a painter, and she and Sheila share a studio and collaborate on various projects, as well as spending most of their free time together. They talk constantly, and Sheila tape-records their conversations: these transcripts make up a good part of the book. Contained in their discussions are all of the uncertainties and insecurities that each feels in relation to her work, her life, past and present, as well as many discussions about art and what it means to be a great artist.
The women share almost everything, and eventually this closeness produces a discord in their relationships. The central conflict of their friendship within the novel is a delicately humorous one: while they are in Miami for Art Basel, Sheila buys the same dress as Margaux in a store. Upon returning, Margaux writes her a confused email: “i think it’s pretty standard that you don’t buy the same dress your friend is buying … i really do need some of my own identity. And this is pretty simple and good for the head.” The situation, for two adult women, is trivial, but it’s also representative of the way adapting to the structures of her friendship with Margaux ultimately helps Sheila to grow.
Part of the difficulty of having no script to follow in a female friendship is that the desire to be as close as possible can leave little room for autonomy, and when you are close to someone you admire so much, it’s easy to want to swallow them up. What I wrote to one friend after reading the book was that the novel “deals with this problem I feel sometimes, of loving my girl friends so much, but feeling stymied sometimes because I can’t fuck them (or could, I guess, but it wouldn’t get to what I wanted) and I can’t be them.” The attempt to work through the challenge of valuing your friends immensely without attempting to possess or become them is one of the most subtle and important elements of this novel, one that I’ve rarely seen reckoned with.
Feminist movements have often used the metaphor of sisterhood between women as a rallying point for political action, and it’s been undoubtedly useful. Yet as powerful as this metaphor is, it implies a biological determinism in the close links between women, and the support that comes from it. Sheila and Margaux’s friendship, like so many others, requires an enormous amount of attention, care and dedication: it reminds us that a person must constantly be choosing how best to relate to others, how to recognize and appreciate them for who they are. One of the serious answers to Sheila’s question, “How should a person be?”, comes out of both the joys and the struggles within her and Margaux’s relationship. Seeing Margaux in all her complexity, and being seen by her, helps her come to recognize that there is no one way for a person to be, or rather that she’s already engaged in becoming that person. Instead of being resolved with a happy ending (Sheila disappearing into yet another role), the discussion continues, with all of the possibilities and difficulties inherent to it. Within their wider circle, however, Sheila and Margaux seem to have a much more challenging time being present and opening themselves to others – this seems to work as a function of their devotion to one another and to their work.
Part of the difficulty many critics have had in responding to “How Should a Person Be?” is a challenge of categorization. It’s subtitled “A Novel from Life”, and this category, and the questions of realism and representation that attend to it, were the bulk of what James Wood took on in his New Yorker review of the novel: a review that both widely publicized Heti’s book and took it to task for sloppy “formlessness” and “narcissism”, both complaints that were echoed in the many reviews, articles and blog posts which followed.