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Write Your Book

Playing the game with Sheila Heti

Alphabetical Diaries by Sheila Heti. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 224 pages. 2024.

A book that blurbs itself—announces its somethings (questions, constraints, hopes, dreams, tasks)—from the jump:

A book about how difficult it is to change, why we don’t want to, and what is going on in our brain. A book can be about more than one thing, . . . it can have many things that coalesce into one thing, . . . the attempt to do several, many, more than one thing at a time, since a book is kept together by its binding. A book like a shopping mart, all the selections. A book that does only one thing, one thing at a time. A book that even the hardest of men would read. A book that is a game. A budget will help you know where to go.

This is the first genius move of Sheila Heti’s new Alphabetical Diaries, which really is a game of Frogger-like leaps, from “A book . . . ” to “A budget . . . ,” writing talk to money talk, sentence to sentence, letter to letter. The premise is this: Heti has alphabetized a decade of her diaries, devoting each “chapter” to a letter, from A to Z. Of course, she has not only alphabetized her diaries but also seriously and seriously playfully edited them, over another decade-plus: cut and curated the result of alphabetizing five hundred thousand words, by sentence, in a spreadsheet, into the 213-page spine-bound art object it is today.

The effects of Heti’s experiment are overwhelmingly many: variously delightful, strange, jarring (that’s the point), banal (that’s the point!), ecstatic, gut-wrenching, and almost always very funny—in Heti’s flip, exclamation-point-y and exclamation-point-worthy way. One could go on and on—as one did, in a chaotic mass of notes and quotes for this review. Warning: Heti’s Oulipian experiment may inspire a reader’s own futile encyclopedic effort, to catalog the many effects of this book and its Excel-enforced constraint. Something à la Georges Perec’s “Attempt at an Inventory of the Liquid and Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by Me in the Course of the Year Nineteen Hundred and Seventy Four,” but swap Perec’s seventy-five cheeses for Heti’s sentences.

In overgeneralizing sum, Heti’s experiment generates delicious uncertainties: possibilities, truly endless and often contradictory. Another sentence in A: “A tendency to idealize the past—that’s me.” Versus whatever this book is doing with the past: not idealizing or romanticizing, but maybe aromanticizing, by re-formalizing—giving it, the past, her old diaries, a new form altogether. The alphabetical order erases context—where, when, why, how each sentence appears in Heti’s original diaries—but also builds a new one, the book’s own memory system. As the sentences accumulate, the reader is more and more able to draw mental maps, marginal arrows between pages. Some phrase, person, place, or thing in A will eventually be recalled by O—or rather, something in O will eventually recall something in A: a hospital; a balcony; an A.P.C. scarf; an Adam Phillips in London, not to be confused with Adam Thirlwell in London; a beach and sex on it. Holding things together is our omniscient editor’s steady feel for rhythm, emotion, and (to quote Heti’s 2010 How Should a Person Be?) “where the funny is”: each sentence acts as a punch line for its predecessors. So even as these temporally, spatially, and tonally scrambled sentences jump from filing taxes to (next sentence) holding balls, they assemble anew, into their own narratives.

A critic could complain, as some did of Heti’s 2018 Motherhood: this shit’s getting old!

What are these new narratives “about”? Alphabetical Diaries is about: “friends, lovers, loneliness, art,” “men and love and sex,” “consciousness, philosophy, story and time.” In more words: change, uncertainty, ambition, success, the self, the soul, money, shopping, shame, fear, ugliness, exhaustion, beauty, art, books, reading, writing, writing, writing in “Toronto, Toronto, Toronto, fine”: her eternal return, home base between all those friends and lovers and New York and book tours and Twitter and all the rest. This book is about vacillating between feeling, thinking, and writing about (D) all of the above, and (E) all the rest: the vicissitudes of being alive, feeling fine—then like a turd, “nothing but . . . aspiring slime.”

But better, perhaps, is a word-based—alphabet-based—mode of “plot summary.” This book is about: a muddle of “Maybe”s; a relief of “You don’t have to”s and a yarn of “Yes”s: “Yes, I replied. Yes, I think love is important. Yes, neat fingers on those girls. Yes, purpose and meaning. Yes, she’s so beautiful. Yes, the selling of one’s soul. Yes, you do feel like you failed at something.” The alphabetical order creates such form-based groupings, which are sometimes also content-based, as when certain passages or entire chapters become odes to certain characters in the Diaries’s cast: L to Lars (lover) then Lemons (friend/editor?); V to Vig (lover) alone.

That’s the “Alphabetical” part. But to get to the “Diaries”—my scare quotes—the question of how Heti is playing with us, her readers and critics, who have given her, of all our contemporary writers of supposed “autofiction” (scare quotes again), perhaps the hardest time. Since Heti’s breakout How Should a Person Be?, subtitled “A Novel from Life” and starring a first-person narrator named Sheila, critics have conflated or wanted to conflate (Sheila) Heti’s characters and narrators with Heti herself, their lives and “I”s with their author’s own. Heti has playfully invited such slippages with this nomenclature, but critics have not much wanted to play back with Heti, in good faith and good fun. They have more often wanted to deny any authorial intention, deliberate artistry, on Heti’s part: the fact that Heti, as an artist, has made choices—like giving her performer her own name, and also giving that book a five-act structure and an “Interlude for Fucking.”

Heti’s last book, Pure Colour—which was partly “about” criticismwas largely taken as another non-novel novel: “part bonkers cosmology and part contemporary parable,” as Alexandra Kleeman put it, or Heti’s big step away from autofiction, as many others sold it. But Heti’s never been writing autofiction. She has always been writing books. I take the “Diaries” in Alphabetical Diaries as a warm wink: It’s like after Pure Colour, Heti is finally giving in, giving us her most non-fiction autofiction novel ever, her literal diary . . . except not! Not at all.

It’s most fun, at least for me, to read this game as meta-commentary on the game itself, and what it takes for her play it. Section I, for example, first sentence: “I act like a woman.” Ah! We’ve arrived, after A through H, at I—as in the letter, its chapter, and the pronoun: the first person. This section turns out to be by far the longest, almost a fifth of the book. Makes sense; my “diaries” would probably be full of “I”s too. But remember: these are not Heti’s diaries; this is a book. So this excess of “I”s is a real choice—in this case, a choice not to edit out too many “I”s. Another, visually conspicuous choice in this section arrives in the form of a space: a few line breaks, followed by “Ice” at the tail of a line and “cream” at the head of the next one (“Ice / cream was served”). A space not in my galley—so, again: a real choice. After thirty pages of unbroken “I”s, it sings the start of something new.

I is followed by pithy three- and one-page J and K sections—which might read as another sort of joke, or self-aware acknowledgement: a breather for the crowd, after all those “I” statements.

By this point, a critic could complain, as some did of Heti’s 2018 Motherhood: this shit’s getting old! But these repetitions and cycles, this endless circling around the same questions and problems, is meant to exhaust us—as it does in life. And—at least I like to imagine—it’s also meant to poke fun at us, critics included, herself most of all, like: See how tiresome my diaries, “my story,” my “memoir” would be? She’s “so sick of myself” too: “I wish I could wake up alone in oatmeal”! Although I’d read that memoir. And that’s the trick: just when we might tire of these “I”s, Heti hits us with the oatmeal-deep truth. Or we make it to the “In”s and “It”s, and get something gorgeous, then funny again: “In the autumn, electricity withdraws into the earth and rests.” “It seemed glamorous, sordid, honest and okay. It seems crazy to pay for stuffed cabbage.”

The book continues as it began: with many sentences about books. Take some more “It”s:

It will be a book for the future. It will be as calculated and controlled as the last book was instinctual and out of control. It will be as separate from my actual life as the last book was indivisible from it. It will be created through time, and it doesn’t have to be about the nightmare in my soul. It will be fun, I hope. . . . It will never be clear. . . . It will not end the epoch. . . . It won’t be done until February.

If you’re like me, you immediately want to move line by line, checking off boxes to see if perchance it’s a match to the very book in your hands: “as calculated and controlled . . . ”—by the alphabetical order: check! But almost immediately we run into trouble—“as separate from my actual life . . . ”?—until we remember the terms of these “diaries,” this book. All of these sentences have been “separated” from their original contexts and from one another, into their individual spreadsheet cells. Besides, this exercise—attempting to pigeonhole the book into being this or that (“It will be created through time”: check!)—is not the point. Just as conflating How Should a Person Be?’s Sheila with Heti was lazy, plain rude, even as Heti here confesses that at least one of her books was somehow “indivisible from” her life. She’s playing along and inviting us to play too. Call me a “Swiftie,” but Heti drops Easter eggs everywhere, like “have the novel in shape by February” toward the end.

Is this a novel? If it is, we might call it the ongoing coming-of-age story of an artist, a Künstlerroman. But totally fucked up. Although we do get the vaguest sense of story—of ongoing evolution, amid never-ending vacillation—as we approach Z. Or, at least, Heti seems to have edited with an eye toward publication (February!), and with her eye on the clock: “Time is going by. To appease which angry gods? To assert that life is happening.” That’s in T. The book must end soon, even if growing up never does. But at least our narrator has outlived another era: “The whole time, the whole of my twenties, I had the sense that I was doing the wrong thing, but I couldn’t have told you what the right thing was, except that possibly it was the opposite of whatever I was doing.” Time’s never been an arrow. Maybe it’s a sort of tricycle? “Walking up the street last night, I saw myself as stepping off a spinning wheel. Walking was also falling. . . . Wandering just this little patch of earth.” If only for a sentence or two, our narrator’s stepped off at least one wheel, and stopped relying on fate. If only for a sentence, she’s learned: “You can’t set out to do things as though life were a game.” Thus: books, where life can be a game. And where the soul can rest: “When you look through your bookshelf on grey-soul days, on soul-overcast days, that’s the book that you choose.”

So I was bummed when Heti ends Y, then Z, the book’s one-sentence finale, in a slightly overcast tone. With this finale, you get the feeling Heti met the inverse problem of I: not too many options. In this way, her experiment sets itself up to lose: the rules say the game must end on Z, which everyone knows is a very hard place to end. But “failure,” or feeling it, might just mean you’re a good one: “They all think they are failures; all the good ones know the extent to which they have failed.”

For my own grey-soul days, I prefer W’s ending, a marathon mic-drop, featuring three epic em-dashes—one of several sentences that made me take a seat on subways home from doctors and random bodega benches.

Write the book that—when a person is taking a thirteen-hour train to a city they’re not sure they want to go to, to stay with a man they’re not sure they can stay with, leaving behind their marriage on New Year’s Day, nervous about having enticed a new man too much, and having listened to the mix tape made by their ex-husband, which is so heartbreaking, so now it’s finally clear what he is feeling and the things he has been thinking, and her heart is aching, and maybe she will go back to him but she doesn’t want to yet, and this lostness—this feeling like she just wants someone to take her heart in their hands and lay it in a bowl of warm blood and lap it in the blood with their hands, just wash their heart gently, polishing it like a pearl so it will come out thicker, shinier, and ready to be put back in the coffin of her chest, so she can step off the train like someone who’s had a good upbringing and has been loved, who can look herself square in the eye without deceit, and can look everyone square in the eye without deceit, so they are understood by her and she by them, like a fresh rain and a sudden blooming—write the book that this person would choose.

W then closes, “Write your book, you self-indulgent fool. Writing your damn books is the only thing that makes anything worthwhile.” Worthwhile: Worth time. Worth the time, hers and ours.

So it’s February; the book’s finished. Or at least a book is finished. But of course the book—the “book for the future”—is never over, forever yet to be written. The future book is always future, and thank god for that: there’s always something to do that’s worthwhile. “Write your book,” in all its many iterations throughout Alphabetical Diaries, transcends self-injunction, offering itself up as mutual pep talk. For the rapture of reading Heti is feeling her rapture writing: “I smile as I write this. I so much enjoy just thinking.” And it’s a joy that spreads. Heti is the writer who makes you (me) want to write. Like actually just do it, “do the work.” (Not this kind, alas: “Don’t feel pressure from people who work at the magazines.”) Writing is serious work—but also can be, Heti reminds, serious fun. And, after all, “It is already three p.m. It is amazing how easy it is and how it costs nothing to italicize something.”