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How Should a Person Tree?

Sheila Heti’s luminous creation myth
Art for How Should a Person Tree?.


Pure Colour by Sheila Heti. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 224 pages.

Everything in Pure Colour, the new novel by Sheila Heti, vibrates with instability, with the shimmering frisson of one teetering on the edge. It seems only right, for a book that begins with the proposition that God is an artist and we are living in his soon-to-be-discarded first draft, that an air of uncertainty should pervade its pages. Formally fragmented, it is almost gleefully inconsistent in tense, point of view, and even style—the prose is now lush, now cynical, now lyrical, now essayistic. Themes do not so much resonate from section to section as whisper and flit; ideas and sensations connect but often only just. “I still can’t imagine entanglement,” we read at one point, the reference being to particles in the quantum state which, despite any physical distance between them, react simultaneously and identically to any given stimulus. This is the enigma that animates the novel: How, in all this vast expanse, nearness?

This is, in a way, the primary question of any speculative thought, be it religious or not, though what it would mean to not be religious is increasingly unclear to me, and, on the basis of Pure Colour, I suspect to Heti as well. The first page of the novel tells us that God, having created the heavens and the earth, “stood back to contemplate creation”:

This is the moment we are living in—the moment of God standing back. . . . You’d think that it would only last a moment, this delay of God standing back, before stepping forward again to finish the canvas, but it appears to be going on forever. But who knows how long or how short this world of ours seems from the vanishing point of eternity?

Though somewhat loose in reference—drawing on tropes associated with the early Christian sects we now refer to as Gnostic, as well as the concept of divine contraction, or tzimtzum, which comes from the sixteenth century Jewish mystic Isaac Luria—Heti manages to cover quite a bit of theological and philosophical ground in just a few lines. The critic Nathan Goldman has explored in a now oft-cited essay what he calls the Jewishness of Heti’s writing, a description not only of content but of the cast of mind at work. For Goldman, Heti’s is a fundamentally inquisitive style, which in its reflexive textuality is raised to the level of an ethical project. This form of Jewishness, and the expansive notion of religiosity required to acknowledge it, one that goes beyond the usual strictures of doctrinal assent or belief, is the source of the power of Heti’s prose and its peculiarity. Creation, time, the nature of God: these perennial mysteries are not simply broached in Pure Colour but seized upon with vigor.

We also learn something about the taxonomy of God’s creatures: people are either birds, bears, or fish, each with their own abilities. But they are all bound by a single task—to critique the work of the artist-God, in the image of the broken deity himself.

Ready to go at creation a second time, hoping to get it more right this time, God appears, splits, and manifests as three art critics in the sky: a large bird who critiques from above, a large fish who critiques from the middle, and a large bear who critiques while cradling in his arms.

These opening staves are biblical in tone, tapping into an old, even ancient irony that distinguishes them from the purely oracular. Still, there is something unnervingly declarative here, not quite terse and yet almost forbiddingly self-contained; not simply an absence of further explanation but a refusal. In our age of democratic frankness, such tight-fistedness might inspire suspicion, even irritation. But what more fitting a style to depict the withdrawal in the light (and darkness) of which our lives unfold?

Pure Colour is Heti’s tenth publication and fourth novel. She has long been associated with autofiction, and as is true of many working within that loose genre, she shares the discursive impulse of W.G. Sebald. Like him, the aesthetic material of her work is the form thought incorrigibly takes amid the alternating chaos and inertia of daily life. But whereas Sebald, the solitary ambler, traced out long ribbons through historical consciousness, Heti skips and leaps and tumbles, with both the joy of possibility and the brutality of the actual. In the prologue to How Should a Person Be?, her 2010 breakthrough, the titular question is posed with frenetic repetition, and the rest of the novel unfolds under the sign of that restlessness. Motherhood, her most recent novel, has the narrator slowing down under the weight of her chosen subject matter, but always there is the self-propulsion of a mind feeding on its own inscrutability.

Pure Colour is divided into nine sections of varying length, with two major variations in voice: one to deal with the thematic conceits of the book (the God-talk, as some theologians irritatingly refer to their work, forcing it to wear ill-fitting casual clothes), the other to chart what would be conveniently, if somewhat incorrectly, referred to as its primary narrative. These latter sections are suffused with the melancholy of a story that offers itself to be told but, for one reason or another, can’t be. Characters are few and mostly gestured-toward, events rendered evocatively but incompletely, questions raised and, at first glance, left unanswered. Still, there is a strange compulsion to the course of things, an undercurrent that becomes more palpable as the novel progresses, revealing a concern distinct from, but not unrelated to, the events of the plot. Heti has discussed her interest in the challenges of thinking about thinking, its twists and turns, its dilemmas and dead-ends, and here she catches thinking in an often-overlooked moment: namely its ungainly emergence from the thickets of an ordinary mind. The function of the narrative is to provide a means of tracing the shadow of this luminous, inconvenient task.

Mira, our protagonist, is in some kind of university setting in which she and her colleagues are studying to become critics. They are young, obnoxiously so, and Mira is mortified by a drunken, juvenile dinner party to which she invites the sophisticated Annie. Nevertheless, she and Annie become close, a tension building between them: “What was one supposed to do with such people? Fuck them, love them, or leave them alone? Yet they seem to call out to be acted upon.” Until, that is, Mira’s group more or less abruptly dissolves. This abruptness, though startling, is a key aspect of Heti’s exploration both of profound qualitative shifts and the centrality of psychological power; there is no need to choose, in other words, between believing that it is either circumstances that change or ourselves.

At the center of Pure Colour is the death of Mira’s father, which completely eclipses previous events and opens for her a new way of inhabiting the world. The first section closes with a miserable coda:

As the past cooled, it changed states. It had once been a solid, then it became a gas. Or it had been a gas first, then it became a liquid, and she was left holding the muck of it in her hands. And she thought, All that time, all that stupid time, I should have been with my father.

But from this bereavement emerges forms of connection that exceed explanation and even, in this instance, description. After his death, the spirit of Mira’s father “[moves] into her.” What exactly this means is unclear: at one point, Heti describes this entrance as an ejaculation, “spreading all the way through her, the way cum feels spreading inside, that warm and tangy feeling,” one of several such references throughout the book.

Heti has discussed her interest in the challenges of thinking about thinking, its twists and turns, its dilemmas and dead-ends.

More crucial to the unfolding of this experience than any particular terms used to describe it is the repetition of the circumstance itself. Again and again, we read variations of the fact that Mira is being inhabited by her father’s spirit, with excursuses and digressions spinning off or else back toward this primary reality. Until once again, an end is brought about rather abruptly, a qualitative change that breaks with the prior run of things but nevertheless develops its explorations and deepens its questions.

Mira finds herself grieving on the shore where her father and she had once sat together. It’s tempting here to ask basic questions of the narrative: Have we gone back in time? Does Mira’s father still inhabit her in this scene? There is no reason we shouldn’t ask such questions, but we should also know by now that no answer will be forthcoming. Mira wonders—or, rather, the narrator does, slipping and sliding around, not quite free-indirect but rather third-person questioning taking the place of omniscience—what she had hoped to find in coming to a place they had shared in the past. She then strips, goes into the water, and is “transformed,” not so much becoming as entering into a leaf. Mira reflects, as one might, on the theme of submersion:  

One day the lake would flood the whole city from the ice caps melting into the sea, and the whole city would be destroyed, and anyone she had ever called a friend, and that log, and this leaf, and everyone.

Throughout the novel there are discussions of division and collection, of what forces distinguish things and what forces bring them together. But the true subject of Pure Colour is the dissolution of things into one another. There is a sense in which the book tells us that this is impossible: once she is in the leaf, Mira does not seem to be leaf, no more than, when she discovers that she occupies this leaf with the spirit of her father, does she become one with her father. But the lines occasionally blur, and as thoughts develop, their origins fade.

Long stretches of the novel are then given over to formally undifferentiated dialogue, often on philosophical topics, presumably between Mira and her father, but perhaps not. Here’s a sample:

You can philosophize about God all you like, that doesn’t make him real. I know, all I’m trying to say is that if you want to have a true picture of God in your head, you have to recognize that you can have no true picture of him. Of course not! Of course you can’t have a true picture of something that doesn’t exist. But if you believed that God existed. Then you can believe anything you want, because if you believe in God, God is something that can do or be anything it wants to be, so it can be a million things, it can be different for everybody. That doesn’t make it not real; that might make it even more real.

And so on. The topics are not explored at length or in great depth, at least not in the discursive sense, but that seems not to be the point of these exchanges. The focus is rather on immersing the reader in exchange itself, when the terms have become fundamentally unclear. What, we are led to ask, does it mean to reach out when distance has been erased?

Pure Colour is built around the mirrored image of this question and the one with which we began. At its weaker moments, it has the effect of a double negative, an ennervating tic that borders on pointlessness. It is notable that Heti’s work has often been described, however fleetingly, as “irritating,” and “exasperating,” even amid otherwise admiring criticism. One senses that the author may have shared that feeling. Try, try again; there is always something going on that redeems, in the long view, those faltering steps.

To borrow from Joanna Biggs’s review of How Should a Person Be?, Heti wants to reconcile irreconcilables. Biggs used the phrase with reference to Sheila, that novel’s narrator, the name being, in her view, a result of Heti’s “exasperation with the novel,” in particular its distance from life as it is lived. Through the wide variety of forms exhibited in her past work, Heti seems to have searched for a cure for that exasperation. Has she found it? There is no Sheila in Pure Colour; we have instead characters who never existed in the world, who seem to struggle even to exist on the page, so merged as they are with the author’s consciousness as it seeks its own foundations. Heti has approached this kind of immersion (and so disappearance) before. The Chairs Are Where the People Go, a series of essays transcribed and edited but not composed by Heti, was at least in part an attempt to give another mind the shape of her own, or, perhaps more generously, to generate a consciousness that is shared.  

But, then, isn’t this always the case? What would it mean to think on one’s own? We assume concepts live in the mind, that novels get written alone in a room, but these places are better understood as sites of mediation not so much between the person and the world but rather between worlds as they intersect and inhabit one another. Pure Colour is Heti’s most rigorously interior novel precisely because she has let go of so clearly defined an I and instead explored how it is contact with others that makes oneself recognizable, even possible. And, fittingly for a novel of undercurrents, of silent and swift propulsions, it is through these multiplications that Heti manages to hint at, even, at times, to illuminate, the unified stuff of reality that both undergirds life and suffuses it. “Colours matter,” she writes. “Colours can be hard to remember.” But pure color? Perhaps it is beyond memory and forgetting. Perhaps this is the total saturation at the end of the mind, and at its beginning.

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