The first instalment in Trent Recommends is Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, a “novel” that shows the promise and emotional range of an emerging talent in Canadian literature.
Heti documents and explores the tense process of growing up (or not), working (or failing to work), and living (or living recklessly) through two young women trying—and sometimes failing—to create harmony between their artistic and personal lives.
If that sounds narcissistic or self-involved, well, that’s because it is, and purposefully so. The novel’s style and content imitate its narrator and central character’s obsession with how to be a person in the world when the traditional markers of adulthood leave her empty and unfulfilled. This sentiment characterizes memorable characters and stories in the history of the novel in works referred to broadly as “coming-of-age” or buildungsromane. The Canadian canon has a few of these narratives, my favourite being Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, but the genre sees its origin and prevalence in American culture:
In these literary works, the maturational process is long, arduous, and often painful, and the protagonist’s objective is to avoid succumbing to the shortcomings of conventional adult life. Many recent male American bildungsromane prove to be less about maturation than celebrations of wanderlust and the unfettered possibilities of young adulthood. Some revel in the pursuit of kicks, the joy and spontaneity of life on the road, and the kinetic energy and recklessness of this phase of life. (Steven Mintz)
Heti’s How Should a Person Be? also shows the versatility of the novel both in genre and form. She makes liberal use of memoir, emails, and scriptwriting to describe different snapshots of her fictitious double’s life, a character by the name of “Sheila Heti” who narrates the novel’s events. It’s an inventive, sincere, funny, accurate, and sometimes maddening portrayal of confronting, rejecting, and ultimately coming to terms with the limitations and flaws of being human.